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Bariloche

Bariloche

I think I’ve fallen in love with Bariloche. We extended our stay here – not once, not twice, but a grand total of three times within a week. The lady at reception recognises us based on that part alone.

Then again, what’s not to love? The exchange rate is fantastic. There are dozens of scenic hikes and drives just around the corner. The gastronomical temptations verge on ridiculous – cheese fondues, incredible steaks, rich wines at decent prices, and a street with over a dozen chocolatiers. And our hotel room spa bath has such gorgeous views that we’re constantly debating between going out and staying in. (It’s so very rare to find a hot tub with enough cool, fresh air circulation that I can achieve a happy temperature balance and essentially stay inside forever…)

Hotel room at Design Suites

Hotel room at Design Suites

The afternoon when we arrived, we visited the main street, Mitre, to get some dollars exchanged. Within the first minute, and before we’d even found a place to park, I heard the heavenly chorus of chocolate calling my name. Chocolate and general dessert shops were absolutely everywhere.

Chocolate everywhere

Chocolate everywhere

We went into five or so stores that day, and I mentally marked a bunch of others to return to. Some of the larger stores had café areas with cakes, ice-creams and drinks, while the smaller ones only had chocolate counters. A few of them offered free tastings. Given the decidedly inexpensive prices, there’s no real danger to your purse – just your waistline. I suggest walking down that strip when you’re full from something else.

You really can't resist...

You really can’t resist…

I’ll continue on the foodie vein for a while and add a few other recommendations. Firstly, ask at any hotel reception for a local food guide. We got one and it had plenty of vouchers, plus many tempting photos.

For steak, we were recommended El Boliche de Alberto and Don Molina. We ended up choosing the former because we’d heard far more about it, and it also had multiple branches around town, including one roughly 8km from the city and hence with easier parking, as well as arguably better steak, at least in our experience.

The quintessential cut of meat to try in Argentina is the bife de chorizo. We ordered it – multiple times across multiple days – for less than $15 USD per steak (more on exchange rates below). It was always amazing, and El Boliche de Alberto definitely beat the other steak restaurants we tried.

Bife de chorizo at one of the branches of Alberto

Bife de chorizo at one of the branches of Alberto

For cheese fondues, locals referred us to two restaurants in town, though there appeared to be a few more in the general Bariloche area. We ended up at La Marmite because the interior was very cozy and comfortable, and also because it was on Mitre St and we’d walked past it far too many times not to go in. A fondue for two cost around $20 USD with bread only, or a bit more for a fondue with meat. I found it fun and nice enough but nothing to gush about, but their onion soup was absolutely scrumptious. Also, call me a traditionalist, but the bread paired far better with the cheese than the meat did.

Cheese fondue

Cheese fondue

For those who enjoy beer, we found plenty of pubs and so forth offering local and handmade beers. Bruno quite liked them. For wine, just try whatever catches your fancy, or ask for recommendations, or simply toss a coin – we had several types and couldn’t seem to do any wrong. You should also see happy hour signs as you walk around town, generally with cocktails on special but sometimes with other selections too. Returning to Australia after seeing these alcohol prices will be a bit painful.

Other things to note about shopping: many retailers and services are closed on Sundays, and most of the shops close for a few hours of siesta after lunch time, though they then open until quite late (10pm and beyond). We needed to juggle our plans a bit to get some supplies purchased and our laundry washed.

In between all the eating, we did our best to burn some calories. Our first hike was to Cerro Otto. It’s roughly 7km following the car track, plus a few more for us because we started the walk from our hotel and had to walk into town before we reached the start of the hike. The trail itself is nothing to speak of – it’s a zig-zagging dirt track, accessible by car and really quite comfortable even with the steady incline and overall elevation gain of 400m. We also had views of the lake and city from roughly halfway up.

En route to Cerro Otto

En route to Cerro Otto

One appeal of this track is that there is a café at the top (yes, it does come back to food). When we arrived at the foot of the structure, we paid the entrance fee of roughly $8 USD per person, which included a three-minute trolley car ride to the actual café, a ride back down via chairlift, and a bus transfer back into town. We then spent a while eating lunch at the café with 360-degree views and two rotating sections (the centre bar / counter area and the windows) to give the effect of a rotating restaurant. The chair lift back down from 1,388m was also quite scenic.

Panoramic café on Cerro Otto

Panoramic café on Cerro Otto

The next day, we drove towards the Llao Llao peninsula. It was a lovely drive, roughly half an hour from our hotel. There are multiple hikes in the area, including one to Refugio Piedras Negras and Refugio López.

Scenic drive

Scenic drive

We set off in the rain because the forecasts were looking quite miserable for several days so we figured we might as well go anyway, and we also took the opportunity to test some of our new waterproof gear.

It was a relatively steep hike to the hut, and as an Australian used to very dense forests, I was quite surprised to discover just how many deceptively inviting – but false – trails there could be in a more open kind of forest. We powered on for a while until the path opened up and we could catch more of a view.

Hiking uphill

Hiking uphill

When we arrived at Refugio Piedras Negras, we found it to be far more beautiful and well-maintained than typical mountain huts (the ridiculously luxurious ones in Japan aside). Then again, it seemed to be more of a bar and café than a rest stop for overnight hikers seeking shelter, so perhaps I shouldn’t compare. Either way, the weather cleared up for us as we reached the hut and we spent a while just relaxing and taking photos.

Refugio Piedras Negras

Refugio Piedras Negras

We decided not to continue onto Refugio López that day because it involved another few kilometres of fairly steep ascent, some of which would be snow-covered, and we really didn’t want to do that sort of climb with grey clouds about to descend upon us again. That meant a quick scurry back down towards our car. We took just over 2h in total.

Our last hike in the Bariloche area was to Refugio Frey, but that’s a story for another post.

Now, finally, let’s talk about currency exchanges.

Those following the news may be aware that the Argentine economy hasn’t been fantastic, and that inflation is rising rapidly. Access to USD is limited due to various government restrictions, but locals are very keen to obtain dollars because the US currency is generally regarded as more stable. That’s given rise to a practice of locals buying dollars directly from tourists.

If you walk down Mitre St on the right-hand side (looking in the direction of the traffic) and look even vaguely like a tourist, chances are that you’ll be asked, “Cambio?” or, “Exchange dollars?” Different people will quote different rates, but regardless, they will likely be significantly better than what you can obtain from banks. For reference, on a day when Señor Google listed 1 USD to 8.67 ARS, we had offers of 1 USD to 14.2 ARS for hundred-dollar bills.

We both read and heard plenty about this before our arrival, and it really was quite a simple process. Whoever is offering you the quote will generally take you into a store – a very normal store that stocks and sells products like t-shirts – and you’ll do the exchange there. It is also possible to use USD to pay for products directly at an improved rate.

As you might imagine, the “dollar blue” rates made for very affordable travel. For reference, we were expecting to pay roughly $140 USD per night for our junior suite at the Design Suites, but ended up paying around $90 USD per night (breakfast included) – and could therefore afford to stay for longer, hence the multiple extensions. It let us plan our longer hikes around weather forecasts, and fit more eating in along the way.

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