Mountains, mountains and more mountains

The beauty about traveling with no read schedule or deadline is that you can be extremely flexible and when you find a place you love you can stay longer than expected. This is exactly what happened to Guy and I in Bariloche.

After about a month on the road from Ushuaia we made it to Bariloche which is known as the Switzerland of South America due to its amazing skiing, chocolates and stunning lakes. This was supposed to be the end of the road for my time with Guy and the little yellow car and I thought I was only going to be there for a day or so before heading back to Chile. But Bariloche had other plans and I ended up spending 3 weeks there and having some very different and unexpected experiences…

I have always loved getting to know a place with local people as this means you get a more real feel for things away from all the tourists (of which Bariloche has loads since it is the adventure capital of Argentinian Patagonia). Guy did a Rotary Exchange programme from Belgium to Canada when he was 18 and whilst

View from the top of the cliff where we were rock climbing. I think this was the moment I fell in love with Bariloche!

there he met an Argentinian girl (Caro) who lives here. So we met up with her and then ended up staying at her family´s campsite for weeks. On one of our first days there Caro took us rock climbing and abseiling in the mountains overlooking the lake and city. It was a beautifully warm day (probably about 15 degrees) and for the first time this whole trip I was only wearing jeans and a t-shirt. I have definitely become more acclimatised as the weeks have progressed!!! The view of the lake and mountains from where we were climbing was spectacular, especially since at first we were above the clouds and as they disappeared as it grew warmer this view just opened up below us. The rock climbing was great fun although I battled a bit without the proper shoes (poor excuse I know, but my hiking shoes just didn´t have enough grip) and then I did an amazing abseil of about 30m with the view of the lake and mountains etc. But the day was only beginning for us

Guy and I kayaking on Lago Mascardi - pure magic!

and that afternoon we went kayaking on another lake nearby (Bariloche has so many lakes it is unbelievable). Guy and I were in a double kayak and I had to be the ´driver´ as he was too tall for that seat. It took some time to get used to the ´pedals´ and how to steer the kayak which lead to some women driver comments from Guy. He quickly got dowsed with some frigid lake water for those comments. Probably not a good idea as I got soaked right back…We spent a few hours kayaking around the lake admiring the amazing view of mountains and forest all around and just generally enjoying the fact that we had the entire place to ourselves. Definitely better then doing an organised tour with 20 other tourists!!! It was after this amazing day that Guy and I both thought we just couldn´t move on from here so soon. The bonus was that Caro´s mom owns a camp site on the lake where we were kayaking and they offered it to us for free for as long as we wanted. That sealed the deal and we decided to stay on and enjoy the amazing weather and surroundings!

But that first day was still not over…I had my first really night of partying in Argentina and my first clubbing experience in South America. We met up with Caro and another friend at about 11pm at a local bar (they only start thinking about going out here around that time) and only got back to the hostel at 6:30am the next morning. We ended up at a club which was totally crazy and so packed with people you could hardly move. It was fun though, apart from the fact that all local music has exactly the same beat and so it gets a bit monotonous after a while. And EVERY song has to have the words amor (love) and corazon (heart) in it. But the thing I love about going out here is the casualness of everyone. We were in jeans, t-shirts and takkies and most other people were similarly dressed. It was wonderful to have been on my feet dancing for so long and yet not feel tired. Totally different to home…

The next day we headed out to the camp site (Los Rapidos), but we only left the city at 5pm and the place was about an hour away. We had just turned onto the dirt road for the last stretch around the lake when the lights cut out and smoke started pouring out of the engine. There was a short circuit with the electrics and the plastic around some of the wires had totally burnt through. Typically, anything that decides to go wrong with the car seems to happen when it is dark and we are tired. Using our trusty headlamps as the only light Guy managed to connect some electrical cable from the battery to the ´engine´ to bypass the short and then also reconnected one headlight. So the car could start and we had some form of light! Great having an electrical engineer around sometimes and also that apparently the electrics in these old Citroen´s are so simple!!! But we needed to hurry as the battery was not recharging and so we were not sure how long we would have before it was flat. But trying to get to the camp site in the dark with one light was interesting as we couldn´t remember how far down the dirt road it was. We stopped and asked for directions at a house on the road and were greeted by a guy with a gun! Thankfully Guy´s spanish was good enough to explain where we wanted to go and we were given the directions with the gun waving around in this guys hand…we got out of there fast! Finally made it there and the caretaker Miguel couldn´t believe it when we arrived in this old car with only one headlight!!!

For the next week we spent most of our time in the mountains hiking. But we had many false starts as the trails we wanted to do are not very touristy or well used (typical of us to choose these ones…) and so they were not marked. In all our hiking together we had still not managed to get to the summit of a mountain and we were determined to do it here with the good weather. So the first trail we did was to a summit called Cerro Falso Granitico which was an increase in altitude of 1100m. Apparently in the mountains you don´t measure a hike/climb by the km distance but by the increase in elevation as this tells you how steep and tough it was. And this was steep and tough. The first day we tried it we just could not find the trail. We could find where it started and could follow it for about 500m and then it disappeared at this river which had been flooded a few years ago and was this massive jumble of rocks and dead trees. So we gave up for the day and sat on a rock ´suntanning´ next to the river as the afternoon was so gorgeous. Miguel gave us more directions that night and even tried to draw us a map – but following directions that say ¨at the big tree turn right¨ is a little hard considering we were in a forest…So the next day we tried again and this time decided just to follow the river for a bit. Success – we found a pile of small rocks at one point of the river which were marking the start of the trail. We found out that night that with the flood a few years ago the trail had to be diverted!!! The trail was seriously seriously steep for ages and my legs were killing me, but we had a few ´breaks´ when we got to the snow line as we ended up in a snowfight. I was at a definite disadvantage though as Guy was above me on the mountain and could throw downwards with much better aim than I could throw upwards. Plus I kept slipping and sliding in the snow, unlike my European opponent who was obviously much more used to such terrain! Any way, we eventually got to the summit and the view was just spectacular. In the snow on the top I turned into a complete child much to Guy´s amusement and I made a snowman and a snow angel which he said looked more like a butterfly (engineers have no imagination ;-). We also got to see a condor soaring below us which was incredible!

Finally made it to the top of a mountain in the Andes!!! Admiring the breathtaking 360 degree view from the top of Cerro Falso Granitico

So the curse of the failed summit attempts had been lifted and I thought we were done with steep mountains. But it turned out that this summit was called Falso Granitico because nearby was the real Cerro Granitico about 400m higher in elevation with an even more spectacular view apparently. I knew as soon as Guy heard that he was going to want to do this hike which sounded hectic and for most of the way had no trails. But it took us a few more days to get around to it and in that time we hiked a round trip of 36km one day to see a waterfall (not worth the distance I am afraid) and then also did some steep hiking near a glacier. So instead of resting my poor calf muscles which were certainly not used to such steep hiking, we were really busy before heading off on this mammoth 10 hour hike. It started off on the same trail as the Falso hike so we got the same steep climb which nearly killed my calf muscles (again). The climb involved some amazing scenery though – at one point we were walking across totally frozen ground which had these long thin ice crystals that crunched underfoot. Having not walked in such icy and snowy places before I loved walking on the ice and hearing it crack underfoot. Again, the things that are so new and exciting to me really amused Guy. At some points we had to walk through really thick forest where there was no trail and this was nearly impossible as the trees are so intertwined and the branches trapped us constantly and poked us all over – we really had to fight our way through. Once we were above the treeline, we had to zigzag across this really steep and very sandy mountain to get to a ridge linking with the actual mountain we were trying to climb. With every step on this sandy, stony part I sent a small avalanche of stones rolling down hundreds of metres and I was really nervous that one small step wrong and it would be me tumbling down. But we made it to the ridge and crossed onto

Guy on a really steep and unstable part of the ridge which lead to the summit of Cerro Granitico in the distance. Our second successful summit in the Andes!!!

Cerro Granitico. From here the last few hundred metres involved climbing up rocks on this thin ridge and across steep stretches of snow. Thank goodness Guy was once again ahead of me and I could follow in his footsteps as my walking abilities on icy snow leaves much to be desired. But we made it and I can honestly say the view was probably the best I have ever experienced on a hike anywhere in the world. 360 degrees of snow capped mountains as far as the eye could see. No adjectives or descriptions will do this justice I am afraid, so I will leave it there.

Sadly though we could not spend long admiring the view as it had taken us six and a half hours to make it to that point and we still had a long way down through another forest with no trail which always takes longer. We weren´t too concerned though as going down is generally quicker and we had about three and a half hours of good sunlight left. In the end the descent took us five and a half hours and the last part was done in the dark.

This is just a taste of the dead forest we had to navigate through while coming down Cerro Granitico. As we got further down it became thicker and thicker and mixed with tall dense grasses that were impossible to get through.

The main problem was that the forest we were trying to get through had been burnt in a huge fire 12 years ago and has still not recovered and then the flood I mentioned earlier created these huge areas of dead trees intertwined everywhere that were really hard to get through. Plus with the steepness of the mountain you had to be careful of which dead trees you used to hold onto or walk over. At one point I held onto a tree for support as I descended and the entire tree came out of the ground and hit me on the shoulder (injury No 1). With no trail we had been told just to follow the river down to the road which in theory should have been simple, but I should know by now that nothing is ever as simple as they make it sound in Argentina…we had to go through these steep small side valleys perpendicular to the main river valley which had us basically sliding down cliff faces and then we had to grapple our way up the other side through thorny bushes and dead trees. In one of the valleys I slipped the last 5m or so on the loose rock and had to jump across the small stream at the bottom and crash into the cliff on the other side to stop myself. How I stayed on my feet I will never know, but I must have looked a sight to Guy who was already at the bottom (many scrapes on my arms from that one). At one point we decided it might be quicker to go down to the actual river, but this was a bad idea as the valley was too steep and narrow there and we ended up having to walk across dead trees over swirling waterfalls below us to try and get anywhere. So we had to climb back up away from the river and head through the thick bushes and grasses. The tough part was that this was all happening in the fast fading light and we were both exhausted. We managed to ´swim´ through the thick grasses and made it to the road literally as it got so dark we could not see infront of us anymore. Words will never be able to describe this experience adequately, but I was finished to say the least. We still had 3km to walk back on the road in the dark though, so all in all the hike took us 12 hours. We got back filthy dirty and I was covered in blood on my arms from all my scratches. What a sight!!!

Originally we had only planned on staying at Los Rapidos for a few days, but things took a different turn when on the fourth night Miguel apparently started having chest pains and drove himself to the park station a few kilometres away and they called an ambulance. He had not woken us up through this, so we only found out what had happened the next morning when Tascha (the owner of the camp site) came to deal with the tour groups that pass by the lake on the way to the glacier and stop there for coffee etc. We all thought he was in the hospital and OK until Tascha got a phonecall to say he had died in the ambulance of a heart attack. This was an incredible shock to us all as we had sat with him not 12 hours before having dinner and chatting and everything was fine. Even though we had known him such a short time, it still felt really horrible. As there was no one else to look after the place Tascha asked us to stay longer and so we were there alone for the next two nights. The place has no electricity and the only warmth is from a really old wood fired stove in the kitchen. Guy reckoned since I come from Africa I was well trained at making fire so I was in charge of keeping the fire going. It was really peaceful though and we played chess (which I constantly lost), read and just relaxed which was great in between all the crazy hiking we had done. Two days later a lady came to work there (thankfully this had been arranged before Miguel passed away) and Tascha again asked us to stay and keep her company for a bit while she settles in as it is quite an isolated place to be on your own in. Since she had let us stay there for free for a week we both felt it only right to help out in any way we could. So we ended up staying even longer. We helped with the tour groups in the mornings, repainted one of the rooms, helped load a huge pile of rubble onto a truck from the bathroom renovation and Guy installed a very efficient LED light system in the kitchen to use less fuel in the generator at night. So we were fairly busy and useful during our stay.

Marina and I in the kitchen at Los Rapidos

As so often happens when travelling my plans changed many time before leaving Los Rapidos. Originally after we stayed longer Guy and I were going to continue north to Mendoza together in the Citroen, but due to many circumstances Guy ended up staying longer in Bariloche and selling the Citroen. It was a great and very unique way to travel, but unfortunately due to Argentinian red tape Guy was not going to be able to take it out the country and he wanted to see Peru, Bolivia and Brazil on his trip. So sadly I left them both in Bariloche at the end of May and had to end the most incredible and memorable road trip imaginable. I will never forget the adventures in the desert and the mountains and hopefully I tell my grandkids these stories one day and they will know they have such a cool grandma 🙂 – talk about looking to the future…

Guy and I on the morning I left Bariloche (with Cerro Falso Granitico towering over us at the back)

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