Nick Phillips spends several days hiking and camping around the mountains and lakes surrounding Bariloche, in northern Patagonia. He describes his journey and provides tips on how to visit the spectacular area without breaking the bank.
I travelled to Bariloche by bus, in part to save money and in part because I wanted to see the vast stretch of the country that lies between there and Buenos Aires. From Retiro station, the bus slowly wound its way out of the city and the urban landscape faded to a suburban highway. By mid-afternoon we had reached the countryside. We drove past horses, cattle herds, and tractors tilling endless rows of crops. The sunset turned the sky a glowing pink and a sense of adventure set in…
I arrived in Bariloche in the early afternoon. My first stop in town was the national park information centre. The centre issues camping permits and advises visitors on weather conditions and safety. One of the agents on duty suggested that with only a tarp I should not camp, due to possible high winds. Fortunately another person was able to help me pick a route suitable for tarp-camping.
The Club Andino de Bariloche was established in 1931 and continues to support various types of mountain recreation in the area. Most importantly for hikers, they maintain several huts, or refugios, that offer food and shelter in National Park Nahuel Huapi. To stay in the huts you must pay for a reservation, but camping outside is free and campers are able to use the huts’ facilities including bathrooms and running water, and to sit and eat in the huts’ main dining areas. CAB also operates a number of bus services to transport trekkers in between the town and several trails.
I decided to hike from the Cerro Catedral base area through< em> refugios Frey and San Martín and finish out on Route 82. The journey to Frey began moderately: the trail was wide, easy to follow, and offered better views with each step as it gradually ascended. After about an hour and a half I reached Refugio Petricek, a basic shelter with a room built under an overhanging rock and tent sites outside. According to the park service it has been closed, but when I passed two hikers looked like they were getting ready to put a tent up for the night.
From there the trail became steeper, with fewer views. About 45 minutes after leaving Petricek, the trees parted and I arrived at Refugio Frey. After passing less than a dozen people on the trail, Frey was full of activity. The refugio and surrounding campsites were packed with climbers who had set up camp for several days or more to take advantage of the excellent climbing nearby. The hut had a fun, energetic vibe with many international hikers and trekkers. The views, too were unbeatable, with an alpine lake to one side and a panoramic vista of neighboring peaks on the other. With a windy location above tree line and a tarp that offered relatively little protection, I spent a cold night, but watching the morning sunrise over a mountain ridge was well worth it.
Leaving Frey, the trail followed along Lago Toncek and was marked by red and blue-and-white blazes painted on the rocks. At the far end of the lake, the path began ascending. I passed an alpine lake, waded through about 100 meters of snow that still had not melted by mid-December, and at the top of the ridge I found what the refugio staff call the “football field.” The flat, sandy area at the top of the ridge was nestled in between two peaks and created a dramatic effect. A small wind tunnel made for powerful gusts, but an expansive view opened up over the valley and I saw a river winding below and layers of mountains ahead.
The descent proved to be more difficult than the climb, and I slipped and slid my way down the sandy mountainside. Sturdy footholds were hard to find, so I felt like a beginner downhill skier who brakes constantly as they slide down the slope. The trail conditions are suitable only for hikers who feel confident on their feet. Additionally, the trail markers were fewer and farther between, and I stopped frequently to scan for the next blaze. In cloudy conditions, this section would be very difficult to navigate. Fortunately, this first descent was the biggest challenge of the trip. Hikers who are unsure of taking on the route could give this slope a try and if it proved too challenging, easily return for another night at Frey.
Eventually the sandy mountainside grew less steep and gave way to low-slung trees in the valley. The second ascent was less exciting, but near the top my arms got their first exercise of the day as I used four limbs to clamber up the last few metres. There, again, the ridge gave a panoramic view of the surroundings. Ahead was Lago Jakob and, a tiny speck next to the lake, Refugio San Martín. After another four and a half hours of hiking without seeing a single other person, that would be my next shelter.
Refugio San Martín
The weather was beginning to turn and I was lucky to shelter inside when an afternoon rainstorm rolled in. San Martín was nearly empty when I arrived and had a much more “backcountry” feel to it. In the late afternoon a few couples and a school group came in for the night, but it remained relatively quiet. There were plentiful camping spots among the trees, but unfortunately the bathroom was out of service.
Refugio San Martín is also called Refugio Jakob for its neighboring lake. Though it lacked Frey´s breathtaking views it did have a perfectly-placed boulder next to the hut, looking over the lake. The boulders´ flat top was perfect for taking in some sun and cooking breakfast. From San Martín, the trail gently climbed back above tree line and after about 20 minutes I reached another alpine lake. This would have made a nice swimming hole on a hotter day. From there the trail began a slow descent and roughly following a stream, Arroyo Casalata, rolling up and down but always remaining gradual. The trail meandered over a barren moonscape of rocks and dirt, through a forest of short trees with gnarled trunks, and finally through great fields of lilacs that came up to my shoulders and narrowed the path.
The trail crossed the water several times. At the first crossing, I avoided getting wet by walking across a well-placed fallen tree trunk. At the second, I hopped across rocks and fortunately made it across dry. At the third I could easily have waded across, getting my legs wet but not risking more. Instead I tested my luck, went for a big leap, and slipped into the river, falling on the rocks. I dried off quickly, but a more prudent plan would have been to wade across the second and third crossings. On the other side of the third crossing, soggy wet and bleeding from my left leg, I met the only two people I would see on the trail that day.
Back to Bariloche
Six hours after starting the day I reached Route 82, a rough, lightly-trafficked dirt road. The trailhead is near an estancia that had a few horses, as well as the remotely located Hotel Tronador. There were flat spaces for camping, but I decided to move on that night. I had luck this time, and five minutes after putting out my thumb was picked up by the first car to pass by. As we bumped along 82 I got a gorgeous view of Lago Mascardi. They dropped me off at Campamento Los Rapidos where I paid $200 for a campsite and the use of bathrooms and running water. Given its accessibility by car, Los Rapidos is more of a family environment. All the campsites have a parrilla and there is a small beach area with benches.
In the morning I packed up and headed back to the road, thinking I would catch another ride. It turned out that the portion of the route north of the campsite becomes a one-way road for part of the day, so I had to hike a few more hours along 82 watching cars go by in the other direction. Once I got to Route 40, with plenty of cars on a well-maintained highway, I waited almost an hour before I was picked up by an older couple who already had two other hitchhikers in their backseat. We were all returning from the mountains. After several days of solitary hiking I was glad to share the last leg of the journey with others.
Tourist information centres at the Bariloche bus terminal and at the National Park office make planning easy – both had guides who spoke English. Another convenience–Bariloche uses the same SUBE card for local buses as Buenos Aires. Those looking to begin at Cerro Catedral will take one of several local buses from the intercity bus terminal into the city center. From there, Bus #55 runs to the Catedral parking lot, where the trail to Frey begins. For those hoping to avoid hitchhiking, the CAB operates a bus running from the Pampa Linda area to Bariloche via Route 82 and Route 40. Service is not daily, so it is best to inquire and make a reservation before your trip.