Day 4 Lago Hua Hum to Catritre, campsite from hell: 36.5 miles 3000 feet climbing
Back from a Brief Interlude of Donkeys to a lakeside tent. A day off the bike has done wonders to restore energy after the leg-busting ride of the previous day. It was also New Year’s Day 2019 and, the chance to sit quietly by the lakeside, reflecting and soaking up the sunshine was too good to pass up. It’s time to move however and the next morning we’re up early(ish) and packing to leave. As often happens at this point we’re befriended firmly by a large family from the next pitch. On seeing our bikes they are instantly full of questions.
The family, all 20 of them have come together for a spot of new year camping, they own a blueberry farm it turns out and this is their annual break away. We try to talk and pack at the same time, enjoying their company but mindful of getting a good start on the day’s mileage. In order to progress we finally agree to stop by for tea on our way out.
Tea, it turns out, is not the bag variety but a popular concoction known a Mate (Matt-ey), caffeine rich preparation of holly leaves called Yerba. We’d been fascinated by the number of people we’d seen on route sipping drinks out of small gourd-like cups through a silver straw. This was Mate, an ancient and social drink, prepared and shared through very distinct rituals. Joining the family we were eagerly handed the gourd with the hot, leafy liquid and invited to take a drink (everyone shared the same cup which, pre-covid, seemed less odd)!
Taking a tentative sip I held the hot, musky liquid in my mouth, wondering how on earth it would be possible to discreetly spit it out somewhere. It was foul! Luckily most of the family thought the same and howled with laughter as I finally swallowed and retched. Sent off with laughter and the aftertaste of the tea, we were on our way.
First we had to negotiate that exit track to the main trail and the 6 miles that nearly broke us only a few days ago. Now however, maybe with rest, or a slight tail wind, we covered the same 6 miles with ease to join road (track) 63 to Lago Meliquina. Back too was that delightful washboard effect as the bikes rattled and bumped their way over the rippling ruts for mile after mile. A few hours in and we’re getting peckish, I’m just wondering how far it is until we reach a village when Lago (Lake) Meliquina comes in to view. At the exact same time I spot a little hand painted sign in the road. Cinco Sentidos, Casa de Té. The 5 Senses tea house turned out to be a little cabin of wonder by the lake. Attached to a modest family home, a wooden hut in their back garden held rustic wooden shelves absolutely crammed with all kinds of cake, bread and biscuits, each baked and delivered from the family’s kitchen.
Colourful tables, with bright cloths were scattered around the garden for customers, but it felt so much like a mirage to a hungry cycle tourist that I had to check with M I wasn’t hallucinating cake (it wouldn’t be the first time)! We both agreed it looked real and, happily it was. An hour later we had eaten our body weight in baked goods with extra to take away. The table was littered with crumbs and a coffee pot which had come complete with a little egg timer to ensure we plunged at the exact right time for the perfect taste!
Fortified we went back to attacking the tracks once more. Riding round the lake the view was gorgeous, shade-dappled trails which opened out to give views of little beaches or vast expanses of water. I wasn’t entirely unhappy however to finally reach the tarmac again after starting to feel quite queasy on a full stomach, juddered around on the perpetually uneven surface.
The loose plan today was to head for the town of San Martin de Los Andes, gateway to Chile or top of the Lake District Loop we were riding. The bakery owner had however recommended a campsite a few miles out of town on the lake. She couldn’t quite recall the name but, with the help of a map, identified the likeliest spot as a campsite called Catritre, a quiet site with a beach to swim from, which sounded perfect. Several hours of riding later and the road finally began to descend down to San Martin and Catritre dropping nearly 1500 feet down a long series of switch backs. Trying not to think about having to climb this on our way out we continued down, enjoying the luxury of minimal pedalling; by this time we were pretty tired, hot and dusty and looking forward to a quiet swim and early night.
The further half mile descent to the campsite down a steep dirt track was hair raising but not as much as the wall of noise we were met with on arrival. The campsite was heaving with (mostly) young people in full-on party mode. Trucks with coolers of beer were everywhere and what little could be seen of the campground under all the tents and BBQ’s, was covered in dust and litter. Surely this wasn’t it?
Turns out it was. With the option of negotiating the steep track out and no other viable alternatives nearby, it was with sinking hearts that we pitched the tent on our patch of dirt, trying to shelter as much as possible from the stiff wind now blowing through the site.
The thought of swimming was far less appealing when having to fight through both the breeze and press of bodies to a cold lake, so a shower was the next best bet. Or it would have been if they had been working. Apparently they were switched on just twice a day and we had missed it. The toilets were no better, with no windows for natural light and no working bulbs, the 3 toilets (one out of order) were best visited quickly with a holding of breath. The one cold water tap providing the only cleaning option on the entire site. Tears and tantrums threatened!
Meanwhile back at the tent the music had cranked up a notch. Unthinkingly we learned we’d pitched up in party central, the middle of the Argentinian summer holidays and college students/kids determined to have fun. It was going to be a long night! The highlight of that evening was the unexpected and kind delivery of probably the best barbequed lamb I have ever tasted from an amused group of young guys parked up next door. At some point their truck roared off into the night to continue the party elsewhere and at some other even later point we must have slept.
Day 5 -8: San Martin de Los Andes
We woke the next morning with that weird hangover you get from lack of sleep, all itchy eyes and short temper. With a camping tolerance that was nudging zero on the fun scale we packed up as quickly as possible and rode the last few miles downhill into San Martin. There armed with a huge breakfast, coffee and wifi we picked out a rather lovely air B&B for the next 3 nights complete with shower, bath, pool and washing machine!
San Martin de Los Andes, is a beautiful, alpine-style town, once a major wood and agricultural centre it reinvented itself in the 1970’s as a tourist destination. Easy to see why as it’s a great base for numerous outdoor activities. Over the course of the next 3 days we went horse riding, river rafting and mountain biking (without the panniers) in the Cerro Colorado national park, the perfect way to take in some more sunning views of Lake Lácar and some hair-raising downhill trails.
We also made an important decision regarding routing. From San Martin there had been the option to cross into neighbouring Chile via the Hua-Hum pass, to ride a longer loop before heading back into Argentina. Both of us however had been feeling the previous exertions and altitude and, the alternative was to spend time in San Martin, rest, relax and enjoy the atmosphere of the town. Previous me would have pushed on regardless, previous me would have voted for covering crazy distances on the bike but, and it was a real milestone, for once I opted to stay still, to enjoy this gorgeous vibrant town and to do less, not more. A revelation!
It was a good choice too, we had a brilliant few days. The only discordant note came from an encounter with a taxi driver. On hearing my badly accented Spanish he asked if I was from England.
“Yes” I replied.
“Ah,……the Malvinas, mucha muerte (much death)”
On seeing my confusion, he opted for the voice translation on his phone, the gist of which was that he’d fought in what I know of as the Falklands Conflict, the short but brutal fight between the UK and Argentina for control of those islands in 1982.
I was taken aback as to a response. At the time of the conflict in the early 80’s I was just 6 years old, it was something I was only dimly aware of, and was shamefully ignorant of the term Malvinas (used for Falklands). I’d since worked with colleagues who’d been involved in the conflict and I know that for both sides there were awful losses. No one benefits in such situations, especially those fighting.
Whilst trying to convey this as best I could, I struggled knowing truly how to respond, what the driver expected from me and with a vague feeling of guilt? It was a strange ride, he overcharged me when I left and I paid knowing this, I saw it as an extra due I suppose.
The experience left me feeling uncomfortable and, whilst not personally responsible for our national policies, as citizens and travellers we are representatives of them. It was a reminder that history is never too far from the surface and that conflict produces long lasting consequences and memories. Feeling uncomfortable is a small and salient reminder of that.
Day 9 San Martin to Lago Hermoso: 15 miles, 660 feet.
The break in San Martin had been just what we needed but I still wasn’t feeling 100% physically so, with my ‘new attitude’ still in place and only a smidgen of guilt, we shamelessly opted to take full advantage of a lift out of town, back up the 1500 foot of steep hairpin hill.
Re-assembling the bikes up top at Mirodor Pil Pil we again marvelled at the views of snowy mountains and clear lakes, before heading off down a delightfully flat road towards Lago Hermoso, tonight’s lakeside camp spot. Slightly nervous after the Catritre experience we were relived to find that whilst Hermoso was a large site there was plenty of room to spread out in secluded woodland section. They even had a ‘quiet campers’ area. Result.
After a pretty easy journey on the bikes it was delightful to arrive in plenty of time to stretch out in the afternoon sun and to finally enjoy a dip in the frigid waters of the lake. Snow capped mountains and thick forest surrounding us on all sides.
Later that evening after visiting the tiny camp café which served pizza and beer we bed-down in a cosy tent, leaving the door open awhile to gaze out at the multitude of stars embracing the mountain. It’s days and moments like these that make cycle touring truly the best thing in the world.
Day 10 Ride Lago Hermoso to Siete Lagos: 30 miles, 1900 feet
Another day another Lago, no wonder it’s known as the Lake District. The area is famed for it’s stunning and prolific glacial lakes, snowy peaks, thick forests and extinct volcanoes. A wilderness until recent years it’s now a huge tourist attraction for thousands of Argentinians and foreign visitors alike. Similar too to our own Lake District in the UK this one was also about to live up to its reputation as a very wet place to be.
With so many lakes around I suppose the water must have had to come from somewhere, I’d just been naively hoping it wasn’t the sky. We’d actually been lucky so far, apart from our wet departure from Bariloche the days had been dry and sunny. Now though, as we pedalled along route 40, storm clouds were gathering overhead and it became a race to find a campsite and pitch the tent before getting a soaking.
Campsite Siete (7) Lagos became our destination, another large, wooded site snuggled against a lakeshore, overlooked by mountains. This site was incredibly quiet which was a relief, so quiet in fact we wondered initially if it had closed for the season, but a small hut selling empanadas and coffee assured us it was fully operating.
The storm clouds even allowed us extra time, holding off until we’d pitched our tent and been for walk around the lake shore and surrounding forest, enjoying the gnarly sculpture-like drift wood, and the tranquil lapping of the water.
Then the clouds burst.
Day 11 Siete Lagos to Puerto Angostura: 19 miles 1200 feet
Lying in the tent the next morning I swore I could hear the rain easing. Mind you, I’d been thinking that for the last 12 hours. On the plus side our dodgy cheap tent purchased in Chile last year seemed to be holding up well against the downpour. That is until M managed to get the zip stuck opening the outer door, jamming it wide open and letting in the weather. Time to get up then.
Packing up a wet tent in the rain is never fun but it certainly helps focus the mind. With minimal breakfast, not wanting to linger we headed out to our penultimate destination Puerto Villa la Angostura.
As the morning progressed so did the rain. We did our best to stop at a couple of vista points but quickly gave up as the rain and mist obscured even the closest views. After a couple of hours we were cold, wet, hungry and decidedly grouchy.
Cycling along one of the main highways on the outskirts of Villa la Angostura I looked longingly at the nice dry motels.
“Let’s stop and book into one” I suggest hopefully. Blow the budget for our last night. Thankfully M agrees, however the motel had other ideas. It seems there’s some event going on in town which means no rooms to be had at the first, second, or even third places we try.
Time to try a different plan. Fortunately we find a quaint, quiet out of the way café which is happy to let us warm up, dry out and feed us copious amounts of coffee, cake and sandwiches. Food and shelter always make the world a rosier place and, whilst the rain hadn’t stopped, our spirits at least had lifted.
Rolling on through the main town we arrive eventually at the port, a neat, quiet collection of little shops and cabins around a grassy square. Better still there’s a small hotel. Tentatively we squelch into reception.
Amazingly they have a room (and aren’t put off by our wet-state). Even better they know Daniel, our bike hire chap and because of this cheerfully upgrade us to a beautiful 2 storey room overlooking a misty Lake Nahuel Huapi. There’s a heated pool too and array of more cake, the owners wife being Belgian and chief chef. This is more like it!
Day 12 Puerto Angostura to Puerto Pañuelo: 3.5 miles
Our plans for the final day on leaving Angostura had been to cycle the 12 km long Peninsula Quetrihué, a forest covered tongue of land that juts into the lake and is only accessible by foot, horseback or bike. The forest, known as Bosque de Los Arrayanes, is famous for its unique yellow coloured trees and “Pudú Pudú” small deer. These deer, alongside a tiny rustic cabin in the forest, are said to have been the inspiration for Walt Disney’s “Bambi“.
From the end of the peninsula we would then catch a ferry back to Villa Llao Llao on the outskirts of Bariloche
The best laid plans however are seldom the ones you end up taking, and ours needed some early adaption on finding the peninsula had been closed that morning due to high winds and the risk of falling trees. Excellent.
Fortunately there was the option of taking a ferry that afternoon to the end of the peninsula instead after which we could pick up our original route.
So 4 hours and several coffees later than planned we board the ferry for the 45 minute sail along the peninsula. With the weather still damp and blowy it’s not unpleasant to sit in the warm comfort of the boat’s salon to watch the scenery and the rain slip by. The weather gods take a break though and we arrive to watery sunshine and a rainbow breaking over the boat.
As there’s an hour until the onward sailing so we take the opportunity to join the guided tour on walkways around the beautiful and bizarre yellow-barked myrtle trees. The trees are also weirdly cold, almost frigid to the touch too. Sadly I don’t spot any Pudú Pudú but I can see why Disney would have been captured by the charm of the place.
The boat we arrived on soon disembarks taking its tourists and guides with it and we sit on the dock waving it off enthusiastically and waiting for our onward ferry to arrive.
We then wait, and wait and wait. The peninsula is eerily deserted now without the clamour of day trippers and a feeling of unease sets in. Due to the weather there will be no other boats from Angostura today but surely someone would have mentioned if the other transport was cancelled…..?
It was with some relief we spot a human being wandering down to the dock towards us. The harbour worker/café owner had come to let us know that the Bariloche boat had been delayed. Not long, maybe half an hour más o menos (more or less). I love this phrase as it’s used across much of Latin America and it’s a measurement of time/quantity as elastic as the situation calls for, in this case approximately 3 hours. The charm of the now damp peninsula was wearing a little thin as the boat finally docked and we heaved our bikes aboard. At least it had arrived though and we sat back in our seats with a relived sigh to watch the rain and the twilight gather outside as lake Nahuel Huapi washed by the windows.
An hour later it was a strange feeling disembarking from the ferry and knowing that our trip was nearly at an end. Just a short ride, a little over 3 miles remained until we handed back our faithful steeds. I’m musing on this as we pedal a final hill when I hear a hooting behind us, what the..???
It’s Daniel, on seeing the wet weather he’s driven to the ferry terminal to offer us a lift back. I’m so touched, but we’ve come this far, pedalling a few soggy miles more by bike seems the fitting way to end, so we do. Arriving back not long afterwards to share hot tea and travel tales whilst we dry off and unload.
And that’s it. Tomorrow we start the long trip back, to Bariloche, to Buenos Aires and to the UK. It’s been a hugely memorable trip and one in which the most enjoyable and sometimes the most uncomfortable parts have been coming face to face with its more recent past.
The 7 Lakes circuit, which we roughly followed by bike, was a very worthwhile challenge, although we didn’t even scratch the surface in terms of cycling. However, after experiencing a dozen or so lakes we felt we’d seen a good representation!
Many other places in this most wild and remote part of the world remain to be explored, much more beyond the more populous parts we visited, but I’m so glad we had the opportunity to sample just a little bit of Patagonia and be once again under the vast shadow of the Andes, yes, even despite the rain.
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