Bariloche, Argentina. The Swiss Argentina. Argentina’s Boulder, Colorado. An amusement park for adult outdoors enthusiasts. Hippie haven. Patagonia.
There are many ways to describe this unique and beautiful little city of 150,000 people and its surrounding area. And each one gives you a little hint of what it’s like (though of course none of them can fully capture its essence).
Bariloche is a tourist hot spot, for both international tourists and national tourists, alike. (While here, I actually met more tourists from within Argentina (mostly from the capital, Buenos Aires) than international tourists.) It is a city on the shore of an extensive and beautiful lake, surrounded by hills, lakes, streams, and forested areas with trails, protected and accessible as municipal and national parks.
At the latitude of Colorado but in the southern hemisphere, they resemble each other in climate and somewhat in the landscapes too. In autumn (late April), the leaves turn colors, in the winter it snows and boasts a famous ski resort, and summer and spring provide great weather for hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, wind surfing, and surely many other outdoor sports that I just haven’t thought of in this moment.
One of the many things that was recommended to me was to hike up one of the mountain-like hills to “Refugio Frey”, a shelter at the top where one could camp overnight. Though I had just purchased a used tent, I was feeling like sleeping in a bed, so I decided to do the 6-8 hour round trip hike in one day.
While every day so far had been sunny, today it decided to rain. With a rain jacket and a poncho, I didn’t mind too much. There were still amazing views of the lakes and the city below (though I did imagine how much more incredible it might look with the sun shining directly on the lake below), and it was really refreshing to be out in nature.
In the last 40 minutes of the hike, it got a little cold and my fingers started getting numb. Then, in the last 10 minutes, the climb turned into a scramble over large rocks, and the wind picked up. As the path opened up, the wind started whipping so hard that it literally almost blew me over. The wind was cold, and I was wet. I caught site of the shelter and put my head down against the wind and ran to the entrance, which provided a wind break and made a world of difference.
Entering the shelter was like entering grandma’s warm kitchen at Christmas. The atmosphere filled with the warmth of a woodstove and chatter from other hikers sitting around tables, some speaking Spanish and others English. About 8 pairs of shoes were carefully laid out under the woodstove, so I took the cue and took off my wet shoes and left them there to dry.
I sat next to some Spanish speakers and started warming my hands as I took in the scene. A guy next to me asked if I was cold and I explained that only my hands were cold, but a woman on the other side of me told me to go grab the big heavy jacket hanging up and to put it on, explaining that it was hers and it would warm me up quickly. I felt like it was an order more than an offer, and anyway I wouldn’t have turned down her kindness even if I did feel bad for wrapping my wet self in her warm jacket.
She was there conversing with two other men, and eventually I got integrated into the conversation, and they even invited me to share some of their salami and cheese snack. In a previous life I would have been in a hurry to get back down the mountain. That is to say that the thought crossed my mind, with a twinge of anxiety accompanying it. But I reminded myself that in this journey, my goal is to slow down and meet new people and see new things.
Chatting with them, I learned that they had hiked up the night before and spent the night. The hike up had taken them much longer than anticipated, and they had to hike about an hour in the dark, arriving at 10pm! The woman, Dany, and her friend Faby were police officers from a rough neighborhood in Buenos Aires. For their vacations, they were visiting their friend Maty who used to live in the same rough neighborhood of Buenos Aires but was now living in a nearby province. They hadn’t really anticipated doing hikes on their vacation so they didn’t have appropriate shoes or gear and were kind of just winging it. They were on the last few days of their 10-day vacation and had just been going with the flow, and so far they were loving it.
Now that I am writing this about them, it shouldn’t have surprised me what happened next, but it did.
As I shared my story with them, they were surprised that I was traveling alone, that I had hiked up alone, and that I was going to go back down in the same day. I shared a little about my travels, where I was from, where I was going, and I jokingly said that I was always looking for travel companions. “Where are you going next?” they asked. I explained that I was thinking of either going to the mountain “El Tronodor” on the border with Chile or to El Bolsón, a smaller city to the south that had reputation for being cute and beautiful.
“Let’s go to El Bolsón!” one of the them threw out there. Maty pointed out that he had heard that it was “even better than Bariloche”. “Why not?” they half joked, noting that they hadn’t really planned anything and were just going with the flow and changing plans at every turn. The conversation continued to other things as we finished the mate and salami, and then a few minutes later Dany said, “OK, so are we going to camp here another night, or are we heading to El Bolsón?”
And that is how our friendship started.
We agreed that we would all hike down together, do some grocery shopping together, and then they would pick me up the next morning from where I was staying and we would head to El Bolsón together.
On the hike down we had a great time as I got to know them a little better. They were all really genuine people, not afraid to express gratitude for their friendship and this experience, to share personal experiences and also to be goofy and joke around and tease each other.
Maty was the jokester who always kept us laughing and singing. Dany had an incredible knowledge of the different plants because a naturalist had lived with her for a few years and she had learned all she could. She was a super curious question-asker and a talker.
Fabi was the “guide” who led us down the trail – he was really athletic and able to go just about anywhere, for example finding a way down to the river to fetch water. He was somewhat soft spoken, with a great sense of humor, and was not afraid to let loose into song. Which was possibly my favorite part about the hike down – the many times they all busted out into song, including a wonderful cheesy song about friendship (“Un Amigo es Una Luz“) that was appropriate for the moment.
The 2-hour ride to El Bolsón was beautiful. I used my travel apps to try to find a good place to camp, but luckily our driver, Maty, ignored me and followed signs for camping near a river. After driving down a gravel road for about 20 minutes, we came to a perfect campsite next to a crystal clear river, with a view of a snow-capped mountain in the distance.
As we spent the next 24 hours together, each passing moment I realized moreso than before how incredibly lucky I was to have found these awesome people and that they had let me into their friend circle to share this little adventure.
Jokingly, (but for real), everyone had their roles. Fabi was the cook (even though he’d never cooked on a campfire before, he did an awesome job!) Dany and I gathered firewood. Maty and I set up the tents. I washed the dishes. Dany made sure there was always mate or “te cocido” to drink.
Over the next 36 hours or so together, we went on hikes, explored nearby rivers, lakes, and waterfalls, looked at the stars, cooked and ate together, and spent a lot of time chatting about life and joking around the campfire or in the car.
Our time together came to an end just in time actually, because the government closed the national parks and our campsite for the quarantine right after we left.
As we were driving towards where they would drop me off, they broke out in song once again, this time dedicated to me (“No es mi despedida“), and they all sang along at the top of their voices – a wonderfully cheesy and awesome moment that I will carry with me forever!