The holiday capital of the Argentine South, Bariloche (also referred to as 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 kilometres to see a simulacrum of Switzerland. The city is undeniably worth the trip, though – not because of the alpine style, but because it is the main base for visiting the stunningly pristine landscapes of the Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi which surround it.
Bariloche 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 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 around a million visitors arriving annually. This is a place of secular pilgrimage for the nation’s teenage students, who – following a modern Argentine tradition – take a boozy trip down south in their final year of high school, along with coachloads of young Israelis and Brazilians. None of these necessarily comes in search of the true mountain experience, but with so many accessible hikes nearby, they often end up having one. In winter, it’s specifically the nearby ski resort of Cerro Catedral that draws the crowds. At peak times, 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 (March–mid June, excluding Easter, and Sept–Nov) the town is still big enough to retain a 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.
Accommodation in Bariloche is plentiful but pricey (it can be as much as forty percent cheaper in low season), and you should reserve in advance throughout the year for the cheaper options, which fill rapidly – and in high season for all accommodation.
Bariloche has a large and some excellent places to eat, most within walking distance of the centre. Calle Mitre is also lined with stores selling local specialities such as chocolate, smoked trout, jams and ice cream. Catering for large numbers of tourists, restaurants tend to have extended opening hours (but vary depending on the season). Some stay open between lunch and dinner in high season.
With the constant influx of Argentine students mixing with an onslaught of thirsty backpackers and locals, Bariloche has a lively movida and some excellent microbreweries. Bars are scattered around town, while the majority of the pub action is along Elflein and on Juramento. However, drinking can be expensive – plan on spending about a third more than elsewhere in Argentina in the trendiest bars.
The numerous excursions available from Bariloche can be roughly divided into two categories – land and water – with the city’s tour agencies offering more or less identical packages and prices. Exploring the rivers and lakes via raft and boat is popular. Rafting can be arranged at Aguas Blancas, and tours around the Circuito Chico and Grande at Adventure Center. For trips to Isla Victoria and Bosque de Arrayanes, contact Turisur. If you prefer to take to the water in a kayak, try Senzalimit. On Av los Pioneros 4116 you can rent mountain bikes at Patagonia Inhóspita. Bikes for doing the Circuito Chico are best rented at Bike Cordillera.
Bariloche’s focal point is the centro cívico, a set of buildings constructed out of timber and the local greenish-grey stone, resolutely facing the lake. Dating from 1939, it’s a noble architectural statement by Ernesto de Estrada, who collaborated with Argentina’s most famous architect, Alejandro Bustillo (after whom the main lakeside avenue is named), in the development of an alpine-style that has come to represent the region. In the centre of the main plaza, around which these buildings are grouped, stands a graffiti-strewn equestrian statue of General Roca, whose horse looks suitably hangdog after the Conquest of the Desert. Locals bring Saint Bernards along, often with the famous cask around their necks, in readiness for photo opportunities at a small price. The pavement is adorned with painted white scarves, symbols of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, and the names of local desaparecidos.
Of the plaza’s attractions, the most interesting is the Museo de la Patagonia, which also rates as one of the very best museums on things Patagonian, from wildlife to modern history. Look out for the caricature of Perito Moreno as a wet nurse guiding the infant Theodore Roosevelt on his trip through the Lake District in 1913. Superb, too, are the engraved Tehuelche tablet stones that experts speculate may have been protective amulets, Aónik’enk painted horse-hides and playing cards made of guanaco skin, one of the Mapuches’ famous lances and Roca’s own uniform.
On the lake shore to the east of the Museo de la Patagonia is the Bustillo-designed Catedral Nuestra Señora del Nahuel Huapi, whose attractive stained-glass windows illustrate Patagonian themes such as the first Mass held by Magellan.
Top image: Punto panoramico, Bariloche, Argentina © sunsinger/Shutterstock