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Last week I explained our incredibly lucky coincidental meeting with Ariel, who through a series of connections and Facebook groups put us in touch with Franco and Sebastian in San Carlos de Bariloche. Well, this week we arrived in San Carlos de Bariloche where these incredibly generous souls looked after us and helped us sort out our campervan, Thor’s issues.
I know I keep harping on about how amazing the people in South America have been, but it really has been extraordinary to be at the receiving end of such phenomenal human beings, who give of themselves so selfishly. Speaking to other Overlanders, one realises that this generosity is the norm and I am not the only Overlander that is being helped with such abundance. Many Overlanders have commented on the fact that people don’t want payment, despite spending time working on our vehicles. Perhaps it’s due to their love of our unique vans or the fact that they are inspired by what we are doing and want to help keep us on the road. Whatever their motives, they are angels, one and all.
The people of Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Albania, shared the same attitude of generosity and willingness to help without requiring anything in return. These are traits that seems to have been lost in more First World Countries, which is a shame. We should all try and give of ourselves a little more – you have no idea how grateful those on the receiving end will be!
WHAT WE DID THIS WEEK
SAN MARTIN DE LOS ANDES
We spent four blissful days in this gorgeous little town that I simply fell in love with. Roses and huge bushes of lavender were everywhere, hand carved wooden signposts lined the pavement identifying shops, hotels and no parking zones and the rose garden was a wonderful place to relax in the afternoon. The main square had an enormous Christmas tree made entirely of plastic bottles. Even the flowers and presents around the base were plastic. Pretty ingenious!
The central square had a market every afternoon with local crafts being sold and there were several craft beer breweries open for tastings. The beach was packed and the water in the lake was not nearly as cold as I would have imagined. It was summer holidays, so the town was busy, but we definitely had the best spot, wild camping right on the beach!
We suntanned, swam and took leisurely strolls around the town. Tai had the time of his life playing in the Virtual Reality store. There were loads of overlanders also parked at the beach and even though most were Argentinian, we still made lots of friends.
SEVEN LAKES ROUTE
The road between San Martin de Los Andes and Villa Angostura is known as the Seven Lakes Route. This scenic drive meanders through the mountains, passing, you guessed it, the Seven Lakes. The route is well signposted with markers notifying you 50metres before each viewpoint, so you have time to slow down and turn off into the parking areas. Each viewpoint shows the area diagrammatically, naming the surrounding peaks and giving information about local flora and fauna.
I would assume that the peaks are usually covered in snow for a more dramatic look, but global warming is playing havoc and there was no snow! In fact it was so hot that the lakeside beaches were full of people swimming and suntanning in their bathing costumes.
The entire route takes about 2-3 hours to drive depending on how often and for how long you stop. There are numerous places to wild camp at all the lakes should you wish to stay overnight.
I didn’t think it possible for a town to be prettier than San Martin de Los Andes, until that is, we drove into Villa Angostura! The main road was lined with rose bushes in full bloom, filling the air with their heavenly scent. As with San Martin de Los Andes, all the buildings were made of wood, with huge varnished logs supporting the roofs and wooden carved signposts dotted along the sidewalks. The smell of chocolate wafted on the air from the signature chocolatier shops and the restaurants were packed with happy holidaymakers.
After a leisurely stroll taking in the town, we found a coffee shop with a coffee and cake special and great wifi, so we setup shop for a bit and knuckled down to some work.
A friend we’d met in San Martin de los Andes, Julian, met us in town and we followed him down a winding dirt track alongside the lake to a place where we could wild camp. This was a few kilometres outside Villa Angostura on a small peninsula called Puerto Manzano. There was a small dirt parking lot with a pretty little beach and a view across the lake of the snow-capped Andes mountains. Known only to the locals, we had the beach virtually to ourselves for most of the day, with only few people coming down in the late afternoon. Tai fished off the rocks and we fed flocks of Patagonian Ducks crumbled salt crackers.
The houses in this area where big, beautiful and clearly owned by the wealthy. We took long walks, sneaking peeks at the houses over hedges, through gates and up winding driveways. The nearby beach was very busy with holiday makers and came replete with lifeguards and speedboats.
Within minutes of arriving at our wild camping spot, an elderly gentleman knocked on our door to tell us it was illegal for us to overnight in this place. There were no signs saying this and our friend disagreed, so we stayed. The police cruiser came past a number of times and never said anything, so we put it down to him being a grumpy old neighbour. That being said, I don’t like upsetting people nor do I like giving Overlanders a bad name, so after two nights we decided to move on.
Dina Huapi is not a town on many traveller’s radars except for windsurfers and kite surfers, due the strong winds that blow here. Our reason for stopping was to meet Franco, who owned a warehouse here and who had incredibly kindly offered to help fix our campervan, Thor.
Dina Huapi is situated on the Easterm most side of Lake Huapi, looking across the water towards San Carlos de Bariloche. The views are beautiful, but the wind gets channelled down the mountain slopes and straight across the lake to this point. It’s a tiny town, but there are some nice hikes in the area.
WHAT WE DID IN SAN CARLOS DE BARILOCHE
Campervan break-in’s are a big problem in Bariloche, so a lot of Overlanders tend to skip this little town, which is very sad as it’s a lovely town. I met Franco and Sebastian through a Facebook group, so our first night was spent at Sebastian’s house and our second night we were invited to dinner at Franco’s house. Apart from driving through the town, we never did get to explore it, but we did lots of activities close to Bariloche. Bariloche is well known for its chocolate and excellent skiing in the Winter months.
The best panoramic view of all the lakes can be seen from the top of Cerro (Peak) Campanario. A number of viewing platforms have been built to give you incredibly stunning views in all directions over Lake Nahuel Huapi, Lake Moreno and Lake El Trebol.
Getting to the top can be easy or not so easy. There is a chairlift that will zoom you up in minutes or you can opt to hike up on a near vertical path. Yes, we opted to save a few sheckles and hike up.
The path starts to the right of the chairlift station and is well signposted. It was incredibly steep, climbing over 200m in under an hour, but there were lots of tree roots across the path to assist with footing and tree trunks on the side to grab hold of. Being peak season, the path was pretty busy, but once on the top, it was so worth it! The views were just spectacular!
We parked our campervan on the road outside the chairlift station and felt secure knowing there were two security guards on the road, making sure the cars were all safe.
VILLA LLAO LLAO
Llao Llao in Spanish is pronounced “Shao Shao” and the reason for going was to do the Curcuito Chico. The Curcuito Chico takes you through a natural forest with Arraynes Trees and panoramic views over the lakes. For the lazy, the route can be driven with stops at the various viewpoints or for the active, there are two hikes that can be joined to do one big loop.
We parked, packed our day pack with water and snacks and entered the ranger’s office, only to be told that the walks in the forest were closed for the day due to strong winds. They were concerned about falling trees so weren’t allowing anyone into the forest. This was our second opportunity to see the famous red Arraynes trees and again it wasn’t going to happen. So instead, we drove the circuit, stopping at the signposted spots for best views of the lakes.
Near the end of the circuit, we diverted onto a dirt road heading for the Swiss town of Colonia Suiza.
Colonia Suiza is one of those places you need to see to believe! Set amongst the forest and bordering Lake Moreno, a Swiss community has created a little wonderland. Complete with Swiss style chalets, red and white Swiss flags flapping in the wind and the smell of delicious cheese hanging in the air.
Food stalls of every kind can be found, beer breweries dish out tasting tots and local artisans sell their crafts from wooden kiosks. The streets are busy with tourists during the day, but everything starts closing around 5pm, so make sure to get here early.
Leaving Colonia Suiza, we continued along the dirt road towards Villa Catedral. The route was very picturesque, taking us alongside Lake Moreno and then up into the mountains.
Up in the mountains above Bariloche you will find the town of Villa Catedral. Predominantly a ski town, most of the shops are closed during the summer, save for the odd restaurant and café catering to the hikers. The ski gondola still runs even in summer, taking hikers and those just wanting to see the panoramic view, up to the top of the mountain.
Our purpose for being here was to hike to Refugio Frey, an overnight cabin at the top of the mountain. There are a few ways to get to Refugio Frey. The most technically challenging is going up in the cable car and climbing down the craggy peaks to the Frey. This requires ropes and serious climbing skills, so a bit too adventurous for us.
We took the path along the lake and then up through the gorge. The trailhead began at the carpark to the left of the ski gondala. It was well sign posted and the route is also available on Maps.me. From the start of the trailhead to the bottom of the gorge takes about 1.5hrs and then from the start of the gorge to the Refugio is another 2hr hike. The trail meanders alongside the lake, gently dipping up and down at an easy incline. Carpets of yellow flowers covered the slopes leading down to the turquoise water of Lake Gutierrez below, offering magical photo opportunities.
At the base of the gorge, the trail went straight up and got steeper the higher we went. The first hour took us through a forested area with patches of bright yellow flowers to brighten up our way. A refugio built into a huge boulder made a good place to rest for a bit before hitting the second, more challenging hour long climb to the top. We left the trees behind exchanging them for short bushes and shrubs. The path also got steeper and rockier with sections that required some proper boulder hopping. I won’t lie, it was tough going, but after 3.5hrs, with a whoop and a holler, we reached the Refugio Frey and the glittering Lake Tonchek.
The lake was really busy with people swimming and tanning in the sun. Others were erecting small tents for overnight stays, while others drank beers in the refugio. The sun was shining, and the incredibly craggy rocks towered above us. If I did it again, I’d definitely take a bathing costume and a tent so we could stay and enjoy the glorious view.
Time was not on our side as we were expected for dinner, so with energy summoned from who knows where, Tai and I ran down the mountain. Yes, we properly ran! What took us 3.5 hours to get up, took us only 2 hours to get down!
VAN LIFE AND LESSONS LEARNT
Franco contacted me while we were in Villa Angostura and sent directions to his warehouse in Dino Huapi. This is where Thor would be fixed, and we could safely spend the night. He arrived with his parents, his brother and sister-in-law and his kids, Juan and Angie. His parents had been to South Africa and his Mom couldn’t stop raving about how much she loved it, which was wonderful to know.
We had afternoon tea with a huge chocolate cake, then hung out on shore of the lake for a bit and for dinner Franco made an outstanding asado (BBQ) for us all. Not only was he helping me and giving us a place to stay, but he was feeding us as well!
The following day we drove the 16km to Bariloche to Sebastian’s house. I had been told that I needed new wheel bearings, but after a thorough look at them, both Franco and Sebastian agreed that they were actually fine and didn’t need replacing, which was super reassuring to know. To test the van, the guys took Thor for a jaunt up the dirt tracks in the mountains above Bariloche. 4×4 was turned on and they were having a ball! They were in love with my van and if it were possible for Argentinian’s to buy foreign cars, I know I would have left Bariloche by bus!
We spent the night in Sebastian’s driveway and the next morning he fixed my back brakes, where a previous mechanic had used a plastic cable tie to hold the parts together. The brakes were still not working 100%, but parts were easier to find in Chile, so he also called a mechanic he knew in Osorno in Chile and explained the issue, so he was prepared for our arrival.
Franco and Sebastian both told me how strong the van was and how well it drove, so for the first time I could drive with confidence and not worry about the noises.
- The Argentinians and Chileans have the craziest eating habits! They only eat dinner at 10pm or 11pm! As a Westerner, I’m used to eating at around 7pm, so can’t possibly wait that late. In order to tide them over from lunch until this incredibly late dinner, they have afternoon coffee and cake and trust me when I tell you that the slices they serve are absolutely ginormous!
- You can tell a South American a mile away, as they will generally have a mate cup and thermos flask in hand. I’m positive they drink the mate to stay awake as they can’t possibly sleep enough, what with these late dinners and early mornings.
- ATM fees are extortionate! For a withdrawal of 5000 pesos, the ATM fee is 680 pesos!
What most foreigners do is pay themselves via Western Union. It’s really simple. Go to the Western Union website and send money to a WU office in the town where you are. I should clarify. It is really simple if you are from anywhere except South Africa, as there is no option to send money from South Africa to Argentina on the website!!! Aaarrghh!
Our solution has been to ask them to add 5000 pesos to our credit card when paying for petrol and then they give us the 5000 pesos back in cash. We have been lucky to get this to work at about 4 out of every 10 petrol stations.
- Most travellers use credit cards that reimburse them for foreign ATM transactions. Examples of these cards are Revolut card, N16 card, Charles Shwaub card and Monero card. I have tried every which way to acquire one of these cards, but as South African Citizen with money in SA Rands, this has sadly proved impossible. Withdrawing cash is always a costly exercise, so we tend to aim for card accepting places wherever we can.
- During the drought in Cape Town, we got used to 3 second showers and campervan life is quite similar. We never know when we will find the next tap with potable water to fill up the tank, so water needs to be used sparingly. The water pump uses solar power, so we try not to overuse that in order to keep the lights on at night. This means that washing our hair is a luxury reserved only for when we find proper showers. Searching for the next shower is always a high priority on our list and that’s why we love the petrol stations. Cheap, clean and generally awesome showers. And there’s nothing quite like queuing with the truckers for your early morning cleansing – lol!
WHERE WE STAYED
SAN MARTIN DE LOS ANDES: We camped in the big parking lot directly on the beach with stunning views of the lake. It was one of our favourite spots to wild camp. There were portable toilets on the beach, but I never ventured inside to see the state of them. No other facilities. This is a popular spot with Overlanders although no other foreigners while we were there, just Argentinian Overlanders. A quick 5 minute walk to the main square, a supermarket close by and lots of restaurants and food trucks on the beach.
GPS: S 40°9’37.56”, W 71°21’38.88”
VILLA ANGUSTURA: PUERTO MANZANO: We stayed a little bit outside of Villa Angustura at a little peninsula called Puerto Manzano. A local told us it was illegal to park overnight, but there were no signs indicating this and we stayed with no issues for 2 nights. The police came by a few times during the day but never said anything. We had the beach virtually to ourselves. Quiet, peaceful and beautiful views across the lake. No facilities.
GPS: S 40°48’31.4”, W 71°35’38.7”
VILLA ANGUSTURA: We wild camped next to the recreational centre in town. No facilities. A kid’s playground and basketball court in front. The supermarket was two blocks away and loads of shops and restaurants close by.
GPS: S 40°45’51.1”, W 71°38’26.78”
DINA HUAPI: We stayed at Franco’s warehouse on the shores of the lake. Franco has plans to make this into a wonderful camping area for Overlanders and cyclists in the near future.
GPS: S 41°3’44.5655”, W 71°9’35.5482”
VILLA CATEDRAL: Most of the shops are closed in summer, but there were a few restaurants, a bar and a shop open and I am sure there are bathrooms available to use. The parking lot is absolutely enormous and for added security you can park right next to the police station. You may even be able to get wifi in your van from the nearby restaurants. It’s the perfect place to access the mountain by hiking or the cable car.
GPS: S 41°10’11.41”, W 71°26’29.77”
BARILOCHE: We spent one night next to the YPF petrol station. The shop closed at 11pm but the bathrooms were open all night. There is a supermarket right there for ease. We parked on the dirt road next to the station, so a bit of an incline but it was fine, safe and we had a quite night.
GPS: S 41°07’42.6”, W 71°21’01.6”
We travelled from San Martin de los Andes > Ville Angustura > Dina Huapi > San Carlos de Bariloche
Total Distance: 316 km
I will be providing our basic travel costs per week, so that you get an indication of what a trip like this entails. Bear in mind that we are budget travelers, so your budget could vary depending on your lifestyle choices. For example, we always opt for the cheapest and often, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and only require very basic accommodation. For us, the experiences are where it is all at, so we’d rather spend money on activities.
The costs below are for the full 7 days. They do not include campervan repair costs, visas and insurance costs.
The costs below are shown in Argentinian Pesos (R1 = 4.20 ARS) ($1 USD = 60 ARS)
- Fuel = 6050 ARG
- Only Wild Camping = 0 ARG
- Virtual Reality = 600 ARG
- Restaurant = 4925 ARG
- Supermarket = 8092 ARG
Van Supplies and Living
- Dump Black and Grey Water and fill Water tank = 250 ARG
TOTAL = 19917 ARG = USD $325 or R4840
WHERE TO NEXT
We’re heading over the Andes again to Chile to a town called Osorno and then we’ll continue our southbound journey down to Puerto Varas and Puerto Montt.