Buenos Aires - Argentina’s charismatic capital - may get most of limelight but a trip to the country’s Lake District is fully warranted in in its own right, says Kaye Holland
Buenos Aires is a magical city full of fantastic food, football, tango, and loud and proud Latin culture. However it would be criminal to travel all the way to Argentina without ticking off the Lake District - an area area of extinct snow-capped volcanoes, emerald forests and glacial lakes.
Reaching Argentina’s Lake District from Buenos Aires typically involves boarding a bus for 24 hours but it’s a journey that is both fascinating and rewarding. I loved learning card games, playing bingo and chatting over mate (Argentina’s national drink - akin to a herb tea - is a social experience not just a thirst quencher) until the early hours. Little wonder then that I arrived in Bariloche with a big smile on my face.
Argentina’s lush Lake District is often called ‘Little Switzerland’ partly due the similarity of its picture perfect scenery (think clean, crisp air, majestic mountains and glittering lakes and rivers) but also because of its architectural style. In the region’s two main centres - San Carlos de Bariloche in the south and San Martin de los Andes in the south - alpine chalets, church steeples and statues of Saint Bernard dogs abound. So much so, that you’d be forgiven for thinking you were back in Europe.
The Swiss inspired architecture is down to the influx of German and Swiss immigrants in the late 19th/early 20th century which meant that new cultures, tastes and styles were rapidly woven into social fabric. And nowhere is the Swiss influence more apparent than in the town’s dining habits: the tight nest of streets thrum with fondue restaurants, beer halls and boutique chocolate shops (they aren’t luxury but a way of life here) on every single street. Both Bariloche and San Carlos de Andes are foodie cities and excel at outdoor eating - most places have al fresco seating.
But the Lake District’s real appeal lies beyond its cities.The region is as generous with its national parks – here’s looking at Lanin and Nahuel Huapi, arguably the grandfather of all Argentina’s national parks – as it is with its chocolate stores (make no mistake if Willy Wonka was looking for somewhere to live, Argentina’s Lake District would be it).
No guidebook could prepare me for my first glimpse of Circuito Chico - one of the region’s most bewildering beautiful sights. It’s also one of the area’s most popular attractions but for all that, it’s not packed with visitors so you never feel like you’re trudging a well worn path as you lace up your hiking boots and head to the top of the 2076m Cerro Lopez.
For serious, leg, lung and bum burning exercise and chance to flee the crowds completely though, climb the 2388m Cerro Cathedral - which, when winter rolls around, is the Lake District’s most important snow sports centre.
Yet while the Lake District is perhaps best known as a winter destination (the mountains sometimes exceed 2m of snow at the end of the season), it’s also become an increasingly popular destination in summer – when scores of Argentine high school students flock here to celebrate the end of their exams.
But it’s not all buena ondas (good vibes) in the Lake District. Indeed the region has an un-deniably dark past, having become a refuge (together with Chile’s Villa Baviera) for fleeing Nazis at the end of the Second World War.
Argentina’s president at the time, Juan Peron, was after the expertise of Nazi scientists (as were officials in both Britain and America). Subsequently around 12,000 Germans were welcomed – no questions asked – to Argentina between 1946 and 1952. And many – such as former SS captain Erich Priebke, labour camp commander Josef Schwammberger and Josef Mengele (aka the ‘doctor’ of Auschwitz) settled in the foothills of the Andes mountains.
What’s more it transpires that, somewhat disturbingly, local residents not only knew that Nazi war criminals were living among them (Preikbe didn’t even take the trouble to change his name) but accepted it. I spoke to several citizens during my sojourn, who explained that the Nazis were judged on their contribution to Bariloche – which was by all accounts excellent (they established climbing clubs, taught at local schools and played an active part in the community) – and not on the way they behaved before arriving in Argentina. Nonetheless it troubles me to think of escaping Nazis living out their lives in beautiful Bariloche – whose pretty pine forests reportedly inspired Walt Disney to create Bambi.
That Argentina– which generously opened its arms to Jewish immigration during World War 11 (Argentina is the sixth largest Jewish community in the world, and the biggest in Latin America) – was also a sanctuary for Nazi criminals is one of the many, many conundrums of this country.
I pondered this painful paradox while on a great day trip to the La Ruta de los Siete Lagos (Seven Lakes Route) - an outrageously photogenic road whose scenery (all pine forests, crystal clear lakes and snow capped mountains) is the kind that landscape artists would kill for. If you can’t get a little perspective on life and love while driving (a car is mandatory) La Ruta de los Siete Lagos, something’s wrong.
By the time I returned to Bariloche my mood had brightened and I realised that regardless of the region’s unsavoury past, I had fallen a little in love with the Lake District. Maybe it’s the heat or one too many glasses of Malbec - Argentina does Malbec better than anywhere in the world - but after a few hours here, life takes on a trance like quality.
Or as the iconic Argentine revolutionary, Che Guevara, once said: “Perhaps one day, tired of circling the world, I’ll return to Argentina and settle in the Andean lakes, if not indefinitely then at least for a pause while I shift from one understanding of the world to another.”
IF YOU GO
Where to eat
Want to eat some of the best ice cream not only in Bariloche, but in the country? Head to Helados Jauja (48 Perito Moreno) where fabulous flavours (Dulce de leche anyone?) are served in a cup with a plastic spoon stuck in the side. For something savoury, look to La Marmite (329 Avenue Bartolome Mitre). This Bartolome Mitre mainstay serves up your Patagonian favourites - think trout, venison and, of course, fondue.
Where to stay
The enviably located (it’s just a stone’s throw from the bus station and main street Bartolome Mitre) Hostel 41 Below - offers clean dorms, a decent complimentary breakfast, a comfortable hangout area and great views. Be prepared to fall under the spell of Sylvie and Leeandro - two of the friendliest people you could wish to meet - who welcome travellers from all over the world.