Friday, 18 January 2008

Around South America - Bariloche

It was love at first sight. I knew immediately that this was one of those places that will always have a place in my heart, like the Costa Verde, Chapada Diamantina or Lençois Maranhenses in Brazil, just from arriving at the bus station. Even Rio, with all of its treasures, cannot boast a stunning bus station. Not many places can, and certainly not many can compare with Bariloche. On one side of the road you have the terminal and on the other a line of solid, tall pine trees, which help the place to smell as good as it looks. Through the trunks you can see the train tracks, then some more trees and Lago Nahuel Huapi, with an ethereal mist rising from the surface as it reflects the winter sun. The lake is a beautiful dark blue dotted with pine-green islands, while the surrounding Andes point at the sky, showing off their winter coats. What an entrance.

It only gets better too. Snowboarding in the Andes was one of the things that I really wanted to do in South America, because life must be going ok as a gringo away from home if you find yourself snowboarding in the Andes. Sadly, having to work as well kept me away from the slopes too much but I’ve never worked in a place with a better view than the cabaña on the road to Llao Llao. If I thought Bariloche was special, then Llao Llao even trumps it with the big hotel looking out over two lakes at once. That area of the Andes has distinct weather systems that change drastically from the high desert of the eastern end of the lake to the lushness of the forests just 30km to the west, brought about by the clouds that sit on the highest mountains and spill the rain. The landscape there is famous for being the inspiration for Bambi, especially the beautiful and bizarre Arrayanes trees that only grow in a few areas of the planet and are threatened with extinction. Their fawn-coloured bark is decorated by light spots reminiscent of – you guessed it – a deer. ( With a covering of fresh snow on the branches, heavy falls that bring down the bamboo grasses over the forest paths to make beautiful tunnels, and mirror lakes that reflect the mountains that you can see from the beaches, you would be inspired too, if only to repeat ‘que lindo’ at every turn.

What I know and Walt Disney is that Bariloche is also very popular with Brazilians, skiing, snowboarding, riding the teleferico to the top of Cerro Otto, filling the town in colourful groups with their travel company winter outfits, and having photos taken with the ubiquitous St Bernards in all the tourist spots. Like the huge groups of Argentineans who have travelled there to celebrate finishing school, they are generally well-behaved and the only problems come from them somehow not being able to understand each other. Which was how I, with my passable Portuguese and slowly improving Spanish, was totally bewildered at having to translate between the two sides up in the ski station. ‘Eh dificil para pagar depois?’ said the brasileira. Blank looks all around from the argentinos. How could they not understand?

The only thing that I didn’t understand about Bariloche is why I left.

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