Chapter 6: San Carlos de Bariloche and Mendoza
Friday, March 19
With all things tidied up, I was on the move again. Dicky and some carpenters were fitting some new window frames on the refugio extension. I said farewell and Dicky let out a whoop of joy. He hugged and urged me to ‘have a good life’. He gestured to the heavens and exclaimed that I could visit any place I wanted but that I must savour the freedom. Dicky was a very warm and generous spirit.
I walked two kilometres to the Via Bariloche 123 bus terminal. After paying for my ticket I spoke to a Swiss chap called Simon, a seasoned traveller. He chuckled when he saw my worried expression as a nearby mother paid little attention to her toddler running a little too close to the road. They were a lot more careless in Thailand according to Simon, who raved on about Chile, except their football team, who were due to play Switzerland in the World Cup Finals. He was looking forward to catching the match with his Chilean friends. I enjoyed the three hour, scenic journey north to San Carlos De Bariloche in the province of Rio Negro. A kindly old lady, sitting beside me, passed over a bag of cough sweets from time to time.
From the bus station above Bariloche I walked down to the town centre while most travellers took the connection bus. The streets seemed safe enough but I noticed a couple of zonked out characters. Hot, sunny skies glimmered over this stunning lake land region. It instilled a positive feel. I found the La Bolsa del Deporte hostel with relative ease but the climb up the steep steps from the main street left me struggling for breath. My chest was still quite weak.
La Bolsa seemed a lovely hostel with an authentic timber interior. I had a lovely big bed in a small dormitory. Lucas, the hostel worker, took down my booking. It cost 45 pesos a night, including breakfast. A guitar band was busy rehearsing in the basement studio.
I ate the remaining foods I had with me from El Bolson and then walked into Bariloche’s touristy, Swiss Alpine-like centre. The place had a very European atmosphere of civility as youngsters and stunningly beautiful people added a more stylish charm than El Bolson. I warmed to the place.
Long queues at the Carrefour supermarket prolonged my stay there. I returned to the hostel to cook up a pasta dish in the spacious kitchen. I got talking to Nita, an interesting and engaging young German woman who was on vacation with her Chilean partner. The hostel was devoid of the usual harried, hasty, hustle and bustle and suited me to the ground.
I very much liked its book exchange, picking up David Frost’s The Americans. His 1970 interview with Orson Welles stood out with the great man opining “cynics think all people are on an ego trip”. I was in a fresh feeling place with space to think. I checked out the activities on offer. There was an incredible array of stuff to do in these parts. The nearby lakes and ski resorts promised lots of excitement and adventure. It attracted the ‘Portenos’ from Buenos Aires in their droves. Perhaps that’s what accounted for the sophisticated swagger on the streets.
Saturday, March 20
I remained a keen fantasy football participant in an online league organised by old friends from Liverpool John Moores University. I selected Fernando Torres as my captain, in anticipation of his involvement in the Liverpool versus Manchester United match the following day. However, one of my other selections James Milner had scored an own goal so I felt resigned to a mid-table finish this season! It was reassuring to maintain these links with back home.
I enjoyed an excellent breakfast of coffee with pancakes and strawberry jam. Two South African women, on a cycling trip, joined me at the table along with Julie Flanigan, from London. After several years of working for the HSBC Bank Julie had taken voluntary redundancy. She’d been travelling for four weeks. One of the South African women had a phrase book and Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries to exchange or simply give away. I was really made up to receive these two books.
Outside, the rain pepped up, and Julie remarked how the weather must have reminded me of Wales! A few spots of rain didn’t stop me taking a hike up 20 de Febrero and onto the stony and winding track up to Cerro Otto. There were cyclists everywhere, some being transported to the 1,000 metre top ready to bomb it back down the eight kilometres. My ears popped as I continued to climb, going that bit further each time, even past the lower part of the ski resort. Stones flicked and rolled off of my feet as I walked along making up lyrics, singing them aloud and feeling better by the hour.
The 25 pesos entrance fee put me off going inside the final leg of the ascent and I turned around to marvel at the stunning views over Bariloche and the lakes. Further down the track the wind and rain whipped up into a storm and I sheltered inside a dilapidated kiosk before running across the main road to a petrol station for a chocolate bar. A lovely white Volkswagen camper van grabbed my attention. While taking a photo, its driver offered me a lift back into Bariloche which I gratefully accepted.
Juan Steffan loved his camper van. He told me of the numerous journeys in it across large parts of Argentina and Chile. Juan stopped in the centre with me for a coffee. I thanked him for the lift and advice on safe travelling. Another pleasant encounter in a pleasing part of the world. I felt so much more relaxed now.
I later plucked up the courage to check out the hostel guitar, an old Fonseca classical. I slowly and gently brought it up to tune as I chatted away with Julie over a few glasses of wine. A young American lad called Eligh arrived later in the evening along with his Epiphone acoustic guitar. I loved the more mature atmosphere in this hostel. I’d felt a bit too old in some of the previous places I’d stayed at.
Sunday, March 21
The last day of summer arrived whilst the folks back home were experiencing their first day of British Summer Time. After another splendid breakfast I managed to find the TV channel showing live football from Manchester, England, five hours ahead of Bariloche time. I yelped with delight as Fernando Torres leapt up to give Liverpool an early lead. United fought back to win 2-1, leaving me briefly despondent but happy to have watched the match.
The hostel was quiet and the early morning arrivals in my dormitory were still sleeping. I’d slept fitfully the night before but felt the warm glow of Sunday restfulness. I headed out for a suitably filling Sunday lunch, managing to find a small table in the excellent El Boliche de Alberto parrilla. The waiter recommended the beef lomo, and, being quite happily alone on my inconspicuous side table, I selected a half bottle of red wine. I took a mixed salad dish to complement the thick, succulent steak. With some bread and a bottle of mineral water, the bill for this exceptional treat came to 91 pesos plus a nine pesos tip. I felt quite contented and departed the restaurant into the late afternoon sun for a stroll into the town where I withdrew some money at a nearby Banco Patagonia.
Bariloche is a lovely, impressive town with a consistent architecture of grand timber framed buildings. I entered the cathedral to reflect on the last few weeks then later returned up the hill to the hostel, admiring the town’s twisting equivalent of San Francisco’s Lombard Street. The big afternoon meal was affecting my constitution, rather like the showery, windy, autumnal weather whipping up the chilly looking big waves down on the lake.
Too much internet had occupied my hours recently but I dragged on through another session, checking out busking opportunities in South America. I also emailed my good friend from Liverpool, Stephen Martin, a travelling companion on a Greyhound Bus adventure across North America in 2001. The kitchen became rather hectic with new arrivals during the evening. I opted for a light snack and spent an hour or so practicing a Peter Green type of blues tune on the guitar before retreating for an early night.
Monday, March 22
On the first day of autumn I woke up to another pancake breakfast and paid 159 pesos for the three nights and laundry. There had been a nicer, subtle family-run feel to this hostel which I highly recommend.
A dry day encouraged me to walk back up to the bus station. Monica from Australia had been staying at the hostel and we met up at the station. She was going across the border to Santiago where her relatives lived. Transport luck was on my side again with an Andesmar bus departing at 4.25pm. The ticket cost 265 pesos for a journey scheduled to arrive in Mendoza the next morning at 9.35. I finished reading Frost’s The Americans in Bariloche’s station. I saw Frost as a very sophisticated and strategic interviewer. While eating my lunch outside I watched a boy practicing incredible football balancing skills which somehow led me to dream up a first-11 team of legendary British guitarists!
As our bus later journeyed out of town, I delved into Che Guevara’s diaries, enjoying a legless kind of spirit from lots of truthful thoughts and an initiative which could pay off. Ernesto had so much drive, energy and vision. The friendly lady seated beside me was a nurse called Andrea. She began helping me with my Spanish. An end of the world theme engulfed the bus before midnight as the overhead televisions played back-to-back screenings of Knowing, a 2009 film starring Nicholas Cage.
Tuesday, March 23
After some brief early hours slumber, I awoke to dazzling sunshine and a reclaimed desert landscape now lush with imported trees. We soon after arrived in Mendoza. From the rather hectic bus station I managed to navigate along the bustling sidewalks. The Hostel Independencia was full but I found a bed in the Lifehouse which had its own swimming pool but otherwise housed a dark interior. My dormitory was cheap at 40 pesos but rather pokey and none too clean. Loud drilling and hammering next door put paid to an immediate rest. I freshened up with a quick shower then went out for a walk, checking out the Hostel International Mendoza Inn and booking my next few nights there. Then I enjoyed a fine pasta lunch at the Pastal Cocina Italian.
Mendoza was feeling much warmer than what I’d experienced over the past month. The strictly observed siesta sucked dry the street life, leaving this strong, sun-blessed town in a stupor. After my own siesta on an astonishingly tiled bench in Plaza Espana I returned to the hostel. I had a shave and, feeling a lot fresher, returned out to the now thronged streets.
Mendoza sprung back into life after 6pm and it became so hectic. I was on the lookout for a guitar after being greatly encouraged by lots of busking taking place in this sparkling town. There was a shop called the Hoffmann Music Store on Entreros selling Fonseca guitars. The place was difficult to find though. I was looking lost and completely foreign in the bustling madness of mid-evening Mendoza. I eventually realised the shutters were down on the shop, largely concealing its signage.
I returned to the hostel after some language confusion when buying a large bottle of Stella Artois and 7-Up in the Carrefour supermarket. I spotted a special offer marker but, according to the checkout lady, the offer had expired so I bought the bottle at its normal price. I joined Johannsen, a Bavarian traveller, for a drink on the hostel patio. Johannsen was in Mendoza for a few weeks to brush up on his Spanish. He showed me the straightforward-looking exercise books from his classes. I felt drained after my evening walk but the lager shandy soon dissolved a seemingly unquenchable thirst.
Wednesday, March 24
The Dirty War Remembrance Holiday dominated the news. Reconciliation was a prominent theme in Argentina. Therefore, a day to remember those thousands of citizens who disappeared during the brutal rule of past dictators was a crucial part of the healing process.
The streets were quiet apart from a few workmen busy drilling away on Avenida Belgrano. At the Mendoza Inn reception desk Coco had the party atmosphere whipping up from the early afternoon with loud music from selections on his computer. There seemed an 18-30s feel about the hostel, a nice place but potentially a very tiresome environment. I checked the activities board and signed up for the Friday and Saturday trips. I wanted to get out and about. The evening pizza party and promise of free food sounded really tempting though.
There was a very young clientele at the Inn and it would be interesting to see how I’d get on, being about 20 years older than the average age there. So, you introduce yourself or hold back, or stay oblivious, but it is nice to chat. A Danish lad, with a guitar he’d bought in Lima, Peru, was sat at a table but seemed rather reticent despite showing me the chords for some Buena Vista Social Club stuff.
I finished the Motorcycle Diaries and left the book on the bare exchange shelf. If you’ve read the book or seen the movie you’ll know what a stunning and ultimately heart breaking story it is. It certainly delves deep into the complex and emotional character of Che Guevara. I find it resonates to this day by shining a spotlight on the social and economic injustices of our world.
After lunch I rested and later joined up with some young English lads for drinks. The evening party at another HI hostel was a lively affair. We were taxied to the party and joined long tables of pizza eaters and drinkers. I joined some Australians. They were a friendly bunch. The tequila drinking games began. I immediately recognised one of the Irish lads from my stay in Buenos Aires. He was hovering like a vulture over a crowd of happy looking young women! I wondered if there was a mobile community of HI-affiliated piss heads getting smashed on their travels across this vast continent. It was just another way to see the country, I suppose.
I left the party soon after midnight but lost my bearings and then came across some of the pizza party crowd drunkenly arguing and attracting the attention of a police patrol. I didn’t stick around but returned to the party hostel and took a correct left and right back to the Mendoza Inn.
Thursday, March 25
Some of the Australians were still up from the night before, enjoying drinks on the back patio. One of them staggered over to the foyer, sharing an amicable swearing repertoire with a young and attractive Buenos Aires woman. She handled him with care, offering a friendly but warning side glance, then completely ignored him. To be in such company for too long could be quite challenging.
Out and about on a lovely morning, I popped in to the Peluqueros Eduardos Cubillos on San Juan for a haircut. Later, after making the Sign of the Cross inside the impressive Basilica de San Francisco, I visited the Espacio Contemporaneo de Arte, a grand and colourful art gallery. I then made my way to the guitar shop. I tried out a few instruments there and explained my budget range to the friendly proprietor. He eagerly informed me that a batch of new Fonseca guitars was being delivered on Friday. That was good news. My feelings for the Fonseca were positive.
Back at the hostel I nearly knocked myself out when I banged my head against the little light fitting above my bed. I rested and reflected for a short time! I knew the guitar would become a crucial companion on this trip. An extra light baggage but a focus and a conduit for my expressions and thoughts. Travelling alone without a guitar still brought me into contact with many fine people though. Soon forgetting my sore head, a lovely girl in the dormitory called Elisa began chatting with me about modern art. She did most of the talking and I happily listened.
The streets became a rather sedate scene during the afternoon siesta. For good reason, the locals avoided walking in the hot afternoon sunshine. I was gasping and a glass of warm lemonade just about kept me going. I soon sought shelter inside the cool confines of the Museo Fundacional. Outside the back of the building is a two-hectare space of the original old town. The shaken remnants and tangled wreckage of the infamous 1861 earthquake really demonstrated its ferocity. The frozen in time scene shook me to my senses. Making my way back to the hostel I recognised the town’s many wide thoroughfares. They were established after the earthquake to protect the citizens from falling masonry in the event of another disaster.
Friday, March 26
The Maipu Wine Bicycle Tour became a lively and memorable day. About a dozen of us started at the lush Familia di Tommaso vineyard where I acquainted myself with the notorious Australians. The main blockhead Mike had gone three nights without sleep. It was a wonder his piercing blue eyes weren’t yet bloodshot from the incessant drinking. Together with his buddies, Georgia and Jules, we nonetheless struck up a friendly theme while sharing an early bottle of refreshing rose. I was the last to leave and collect my bike when the gregarious head of the vineyard family shouted and ambled over, gave me a tight embrace and asked about my experience on his family’s pride and joy. Descendants of a hardy Italian family, the current generation had thrown open their doors and gates in an enthusiasm for visitors.
Our cycling group departed on the straight, flat road. Mike was wobbling on his bike, perhaps putting it on but all the same, perilously close to a couple of oncoming cars. It was turning into an extremely hot day. I had my sun cream on though.
Our next destination, the Tempus Alba, promised more drinks and dark and dusty cellar inspections. This time, the mighty reds were on the table, rich and fruity to say the least. Over a tasty if not rather salty beef stew for lunch, Jules told me about his media relations role back home in Sydney where he chauffeured various UK artists, including his favourite, the altogether cool Jamie T.
The bike tour to the next vineyard took a lot longer and some of us straggled behind. We were rewarded with the best tasting red of the day and I gladly bought one to take back to the hostel. The rest of the group were a friendly bunch including a Brazilian called Christian and his friend, from Sao Paulo. Mike continued his persistent ‘por favor’ flavour of Spanish repertoire, becoming a bit tedious at times. The three Israeli girls in the group were certainly peeved with him for some reason.
Rushing to cross a road to the final destination, I very nearly stepped into the path of a hurtling lorry but held back with a second or two to spare. Some of the others noticed how close I was to being hit and asked me if I was okay. I felt momentarily shaken but reassured that there were those in our group looking out for others. We ended the day inside a shop serving chocolates, liquors and other alcoholic specials. I tasted some fine chocolate and opted for the blueberry vodka while the hardcore, including Mike, tackled the absinthe to much egging on. The wine was certainly taking a hold and back at the hostel we continued drinking. Jules played some guitar and we shared our experiences of learning.
After 6pm I returned to the Hoffmann store and bagged myself a Fonseca Spanish guitar for 380 pesos, plus an attractive dark, padded case for 100. Back in the dormitory I played my new instrument for almost an hour, slowly bringing the tuning up to what I thought was standard. I later joined Maggie and Christina from the United States for a few Heinekens and laughs. Eligh, who I first met back in Bariloche, was also there. We somehow got talking about the Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac. Dharma Bums was Eligh’s favourite. He described it as a more profound journey than On The Road. Maggie and Christina were heading for Bolivia very soon but they needed visas which could be purchased in Mendoza.
At midnight we all reconvened at the Pastal Cocina Italian. We were in a party mood and the Australians were leading the charge as they cheered on the many hen parties passing the vicinity. It was a humorous end to a fine day where I began to lighten up a bit. I think my new guitar was already playing its part in lifting my spirits!
Saturday, March 27
I nearly missed the 6.45am alarm for the next day trip. I was feeling very tired and slightly hungover. We would be stopping in the tourist town of Uspallata and then ascending to the ski resort of Los Penitentes at an altitude of 2,580 metres. The steep climb up Route 7 and the increasing altitude of the Andean mountain range did me no favours. It promised to be a long day.
Within an hour of setting off from Mendoza our minibus became clogged up in a huge tailback. Two lorries had collided further up the road. Our driver eventually turned back to take a diversion along a rather dusty track. With little money on me, I stocked up on some snacks in Uspallata rather than pay for the expensive lunch being laid on up at the ski resort’s HI hostel.
I could hardly keep my eyes open but soon perked up. We reached the stunning Puente del Inca natural stone bridge over the gushing white waters of the Rio Mendoza. A traditional fair added further colour to this amazing backdrop. Underneath the bridge are the stained yellow, green rock walls and ruins of an old spa. The incredible dried lava flow-like appearance is caused by warm, sulphurous thermal springs.
A catastrophic landslide had wreaked havoc here decades ago. Many homes and a big hotel were flattened but a solitary church somehow avoided the destruction. It stands alone on the lonely slopes to this day. There was so much stunning scenery to marvel at. Our guide Uzi talked in both Spanish and English throughout the trip. We were also lucky to have an amiable character and good driver at the wheel.
At the last stop in Los Penitentes, we walked up in bright sunshine to a stunning mirador view of the highest Andean mountain Aconcagua, a massive bulk of a backdrop. We rested on a naturally manicured grassy verge overlooking a small lake for a good while. The altitude’s light air created strange sensations and I kept coughing. I listened in to the jovial sounding conversation between the Spaniards in our group and the driver. I was eager to speak more Spanish. It was the crucial way to feel more connected to where I was.
The main road back down to Mendoza was still blocked so the driver chose an extraordinary return route. We wound down through the hairpin bends and skirted the barrier-less vertical drops of an old mountain pass. It was a two-hour long adrenalin rush which really charged up my batteries.
Back in the hostel I joined another bunch of Australians and opened my red wine. These Aussies were much more into their football, cricket and politics. As the beer flowed, a massive lad called Gavin talked approvingly of his day long stints downing 12 tins of lager at Sydney Cricket Ground. However, he stressed how any displays of drunkenness barred one from any future cricket games. Gavin also barked many a left wing response to a right wing leaning Aussie. It was all refreshingly good-natured though.
I brought my new guitar down from the dormitory to show Jules. The days of bingeing were finally catching up to leave a subdued atmosphere hanging over the hostel. Later on in the early hours a female companion of Mike apparently fell over and banged her head. I was on the internet when Mike nervously came over to ask for assistance. The young woman was certainly with it and not concussed as Mike first thought. We cleared a large sofa for her to rest on. The vast majority in the hostel were worn out after days of excitement. Travellers had to be careful and look out for each other.
Palm Sunday, March 28
I slept soundly and enjoyed another excellent breakfast of milk, cereal, cordial juice, coffee and croissants. Distance and time had stretched away into a new stream of thinking over the last few days. Having things to do and buying a guitar were positive steps. Having a few drinks and socialising made me a lot happier as well. Such a boost was vital. Having a guitar would add spice to my adventures. I could pick it up and practice a little whenever.
I took lunch in one of the well recommended restaurants on Avenida Sarmiento. It left me unimpressed though with its general lack of cleanliness. The tables were dirty. Flies were everywhere around the street side tables. The nearby drains smelt awful as well. I drank a cola but declined to order food. An entertaining busker was performing around the tables and remedied the experience somewhat. Many tips ensued as diners approved of his strum heavy Argentine sound and song. I soon afterwards found the Liverpool Pub. The temptation of Guinness led me to part with 22 pesos for a bottle of the black stuff. A live performance of True Colors by Cindi Lauper blared from the overhead televisions.
Olive branches left on bicycle handlebars and car dashboards signified the beginning of Holy Week. Outside all the churches I passed during the day there were many women distributing palm and olive branches.
Mendoza’s wide avenues are certainly attractive but the Parque General San Martin on a Sunday, with thousands of families picnicking amidst its green leafy splendour, is even better. It was late in the day though and darkness soon descended. The elevated Cerro de La Gloria was too far away. Crowds were dwindling and I didn’t want to risk a lonesome walk with my camera.
It was so calm back at the hostel. I popped into the next door café and enjoyed a hot dog and a large bottle of Andes cerveza for just 13 pesos. The hostel had run out of beer so no wonder it was quiet! However, there was a nearby store selling Andes for just six pesos and I ambled back and forth from there till the early hours. I always found Sunday night drinking to be a more pleasurable and relaxing affair!