We crossed into Argentina over a snowy Andean mountain pass, and dropped into a spectacular series of evergreen and stone gorges and cliffs, draped in white powdery snow.
Some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world separate Chile from Argentina over the Andes, and it was hard not to beg Mark to stop the car every 100m so I could take another photo that would never do justice to the majesty of the place.
The actual border sat atop the ridge between the two countries. It was windy, cold and covered in snow. The Argentinian border control station sat alongside a frozen lake, and the snowy alpine scenery was just gorgeous. The no man’s land between the two border control points is a beautiful Chilean national park with pine trees, peaks, passes and lots and lots of snow. There is one road. One way in, one way out, and only one way to go.
We descended into Bariloche, a winter and summer sports playground, set around the shores of the stunning Lago Neuquen, with the white jagged peaks of the Andes stretching out into the distance. Even in July, bitterly cold and covered in snow, Bariloche was bursting at the seams with tourists – mostly Argentinian and Chilean students and families off for the 3 week long winter holidays.
However, a bustling town isn’t always the place for a family who are camping their way across the continent, so we made our way out of town and around the lake, looking for somewhere pretty to sleep. But first things first…we were starving and needed food.
We found the funky little Casa Caracol, a brightly painted restaurant with picture windows, right on the lake. It was the perfect spot to watch the sun set over the mountains. We were eating at non-Latin hours, and were the only people there, but were warmly greeted and ushered inside by an ancient man who introduced himself as Luisito.
The place was Uber hip, and didn’t appear to be the domain of a gregarious little old man. In fact, it was his son’s enterprise, and we soon were introduced to the (hipster) tattooed son and his business partner.
They had set up an awesome spot on the lake, with picnic tables in front, and extensive beer garden and Quincho (covered barbecue house) in back, SUP and bike rentals, and live music three nights per week. Murals covered the walls inside and out, and the menu was as adventurous as the decor.
Luisito recommended something to us that sounded like pizza and home fries, and told us to only order one…it would be enough for all of us.
When somebody like Luisito makes a recommendation, you take it. We didn’t know what was coming, and were surprised to be served a giant free form “pizza” but with a very large thin cut of beef in place of the crust. If you’ve never had beef base pizza, I have to encourage you and your arteries to try it. Wow.
We had made such good friends with Luisito at this point, that we asked if he could recommend somewhere for us to camp for the night. He asked for a minute, and after about three minutes, came back to tell us that we could camp in the back beer garden – safely inside the gates – and he threw in a hot shower and breakfast in the morning too boot. At about £30, it was expensive for camping, but truly an offer we weren’t going to refuse…and that’s how we ended up spending the night in camping in a snowy beer garden in Patagonia.
We hung out for the live traditional music, Austin played with the owner’s kids, and we instantly decided to love Argentina!
South American Skiing
We had promised Austin that we would take him skiing in South America, and so we made our way up to the Cerro Catedral, a mega ski resort just outside Bariloche, that promised to be the height of snow skiing in Argentina. However, they seemed to be having a snow problem. The lower slopes were nearly free of snow, and the upper slopes were nothing but ice.
We were kicking ourselves for passing on the skiing at Volcan Osorno in Chile. There, the snow was perfect and powdery, but the lift was broken, and there was no ski school. In Bariloche, the village was in full swing, but the snow was a bust. But there are only so many times you can tell a 7 year old “later”, and given the extensive infrastructure at Cerro Catedral, we opted to put him in ski school for a day, but not bother with skiing ourselves.
I say “ourselves”, but I really just mean me. After three knee surgeries, Mark won’t even flirt with the idea of getting back on a snowboard.
Ski school was a success, and Austin had a great time getting to do something just for himself for a day. He was still buzzing later that day when we arrived at one of Argentina’s famous Refugios, where they run a sort of hostel for trekkers and campers, and will find a spot for anyone who arrives, even if it’s a sleeping bag on the floor. They welcomed us in, and introduced us around to everyone there, including the other guests.
There were people gathered in the kitchen making drinks and sharing their own national dishes. Kids alternated between intense games of chess and raucous games of hide and seek throughout the entire Refugio. The atmosphere was warm, wonderful and one where everyone belongs.
We spent the evening in the warm common room, milking the wifi and sipping some local brews before heading out to the truck to sleep for the night. We were sad to say goodbye the next day, but it was time to carry ourselves further onward into Argentina.
The drive to El Bolson offered even more postcard landscapes, as the jagged peaks gave way to broad mountains and deep glacial valleys. The town promised to be a little bohemian enclave of health food shops and eco resorts. It probably was just that, but it was also about 85% of the town was boarded up for the winter…again.
There wasn’t much to do in El Bolson that was actually open in July, but we did manage to get a great day in skiing at the local ski area, though. There was a single lift that took skiers (skis in hand) up the mountain to where the slopes converged into a flat space.
Austin spent the entire day on the bunny slope working hard at improving on what he had learned the day before in ski school. He perfected his snow plough, and taught himself to turn, sticking with it the whole day.
He’s not a kid to stick through something that isn’t coming easily for him, so we were super proud of him for working so hard at something that he was really quite terrible at to begin with!
El Bolson held a lot of promise — for the summer, and would probably be somewhere we’d like to give a second chance. But even in the heart of the winter holidays, when everywhere else was packed to the gills, most of the town was boarded up, and didn’t have much to offer.
So we didn’t linger. It was time to cross to the other side of Argentina. Away from the mountains, and hopefully toward better weather.
As we turned East, we were met with even more surprising landscapes. We passed through canyons etched over eons, carved red plateaus and cliffs, surrounded by scrubby grasslands patrolled by Gauchos. The Gauchos rode their fence lines, dressed in their baggy pants, tucked into tall riding boots, with dusty blankets thrown over their shoulders, and their trademark floppy berets atop their heads.
These guys were the real deal. Descendants of the men (and women) who fought and won wars against enemies with more sophisticated armies. These are the people who have nurtured and cared for this land for centuries. They are the guardians and the tradition of this land. Along the roadsides are little red shrines to the most famous Gaucho of them all, Gauchito Gil.
The Robin Hood of Argentina, he was part outlaw, part saint, and his memory lives on in the red sashes that symbolise the gaucho way of life.
We stopped for lunch at a little roadside cafe – not much more than a wooden shack, serving up whatever they had on offer that day. It was decorated with the remanants of a child’s birthday party, photos of the gorgeous Eva Peron, and Gaucho artefacts and memorabilia. The little old man who owned the place, proudly told us some of the history of this part of the world, and served up some truly delicious milanesa sandwiches.
We ate a lot of milanesa throughout our time in South America, and the thin, tender pan fried piece of meat became Austin’s go-to dish of the continent!
That night, we camped under the stars in the shadow of those tall plateaus of Los Altares, and woke up to beautiful pastel sunrises that brightened into flaming red cliff faces.
We had bought Austin some new hiking boots in Bariloche, and these were his very first shoes with “tie laces”. He and Mark had a shoe tying lesson in the pastel pinks of the early morning sunrise, in that beautifully tranquil environment. It went on to take many many more lessons before he got it right, but he eventually got it down!
The road signs along Argentina’s famous Ruta 40 are written in both Welsh and Spanish, a reflection of the mixed heritage of Argentina.
Argentina’s European heritage
While this area was settled by the Welsh in the 19th century, many more parts of Argentina were settled by Germans, and their legacy is evident in the genetics of their European heritage, and in the traditions that they hold to.
The faces of the Argentinians that we met would have fit in with my schoolmates, descendants of the German communities that settled Texas settled at the same time. And the food, the sausage and sauerkraut in particular, was eerily familiar to the same heritage sausage that my family produces to this day.
It’s little wonder then that Nazis escaping justice fled to these parts after WWII. Much would have seemed familiar to them – an entire world away.
Wide open spaces
Eventually, Los Altares gave way to big skies and wide open spaces. And a whole lot of nothing. Like, a whole very lot of nothing but roads that stretched out into the distance until they met the horizon and beyond, never once altering their straight course across the arid land.
In the tiny Welsh town of Trelew, is the world class Museo Paleontologico Edigio Feruglio.It started off as a short stop to do something Austin would be interested in, and to break up the trip. Instead, we spent several hours wondering around the hands on exhibits and really lifelike dioramas of this excellent museum.
Trelew is one of the Welsh settlements in Argentina that still holds tight to their Welsh traditions and language. You can have a high tea here, and visit the pretty little picket fence houses that line the city centre.
But perhaps even more interesting is that Trelew sits next to the site where the largest dinosaur ever discovered, fell over and died millions of years ago, leaving his bones behind to turn to stone and fascinate professional and amatuer archaeologists alike many years later.
It’s one of the best dino museums we’ve ever visited. And if you go here to see the gigantic bones they uncovered, then you also have to visit the life sized model on the road out of town. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to be walking across the grasslands and see that guy coming toward you!
It took us two days to cross the southern pampas, and we finally arrived in Puerto Madryn, where we checked into a flat for three days to recharge ourselves, our various batteries, catch up on some admin, sleep in real beds, cook indoors, and take a shower.
Austin learned to tie his shoes and lost a tooth along the way, making this part of the journey really rather special.