Our original plan for South America was to go as far south as the Patagonian glaciers--essentially all the way to the southern tip--but because of time constraints, uncertain weather, and the fact that Argentina is just really big, that turned out to be unrealistic, so the farthest south we'll get is Bariloche, in Argentina's lake district, and the northern tip of Patagonia. We got just enough of a taste of the blue mountain lakes, imposing mountainscapes, and plentiful local game, beer, and chocolate to whet our appetites and assure a return visit.
One thing that made us unsure whether we'd even get this far south were the lingering effects of a volcanic eruption that took place in Chile in June. The volcano being a mere 100km from Bariloche, the resulting ash cloud covered the area, reducing visibility, and grounding planes for months, effectively eliminating the area's winter tourist season. We did a bit of reading on the area's current state and heard mostly positive things so we decided to make the trip. The ash was definitely still lingering (apparently the volcano is still expelling a bit of it); so depending on the direction of the wind, some days we could see all the impressive mountains in the distance, and sometimes we could barely see to the other side of the thin lake on which Bariloche is situated. In addition, figuring out what to do with all the ash has become a real problem. There are piles of it which look like snowdrifts on many corners, but unlike snow it won't melt when warmer weather comes, and because of how light it is and how windy the area is, anywhere it's put there's the threat of it simply blowing away and ending up covering everything again.
But we didn't let a little ash get in our way; we did our best to fill our time exploring the scenery and natural wonders surrounding the town. When we arrived, the ski season was just wrapping up, so we took the opportunity to get in a day of spring skiing. The snow was mixed: a little too icy in the morning and a little too slushy in the afternoon, and the small taste of the scenery we got before the ash rolled in was impressive and tantalizing; we can only imagine how spectacular the panoramic view would be on a typical, clear day. Overall, we enjoyed taking part in one of our favorite pastimes, and one we didn't expect to get a chance to do on our trip.
After the next two days' rain cleared, we took a short walk to a mountain hut for some great views of the city and the lake, and one of the best cups of hot chocolate either of us has ever had, and on our final day rented bikes and took to the Circuito Chico, a 30-km loop through hills and mountains a bit outside the city.
While the biking was a bit harder than we expected, with many hills and the rental company's incongruos choice of giving us mountain bikes for a paved road, the views made it worth it, especially the spectacular panoramic view of Lake Nahuel Huapi afforded from Villa Tacul, where we had a quick and windy lunch. Another highlight was the solemn mountain cemetary, where decades of Patagonian hikers, climbers, and skiers who lost their lives in the mountains are laid to rest with an impressive final view.
One thing that was decidedly not a highlight of the ride was hotel Llao Llao (pronounced shao-shao; rhymes with cow-cow): undisputedly Argentina's best hotel, we thought the hotel itself looked like a Holiday Inn, and we had seen at least a dozen better views along the road than any we could find from the hotel's grounds. Maybe we're just bitter (and not qualified to judge the hotel's merits) because only guests are allowed to even set foot inside.
All in all, we're thrilled we got to dip our toes into Patagonia, and despite the uncooperative (and somewhat apocolyptic) weather, we got enough of a taste for its unique surroundings to guarantee a future visit in a better season, and at a time when we have the time to explore as much of it as we'd like.