Our last stop in Patagonia was the Argentinian Lakes District, although some may argue it is its own separate entity from Patagonia. The main hub of this area is Bariloche, a seemingly Alps-esque town on the edge of Lago Nahuel Huapi known for its ski resorts, breathtaking mountain and lakes scenery and for some reason chocolate. Actually the reason it’s known for chocolate is just for the sake of creating another reason for vacationers from Buenos Aires to visit the city during low season. And this is exactly when we arrived, Easter weekend and….Chocolate Fest! Forget mountains, Roxy had finally found her happy place.
Moving on to what I was most excited about, trading the cost of living for two weeks in South America for a single day of guided fly fishing. We had been exploring options for fly fishing as we moved north through Patagonia, constantly passing world class rivers with legendary salmon, rainbow and brown trout but decided on a day in the Lakes District after finding a reasonably priced guide and hearing about the monster brown trout that migrate from Lago Nahuel Huapi into the rivers at precisely this time of year. So we pulled ourselves from the chocolate shops and headed off to float the gin clear waters of the Rio Limay.
Our guide made it clear from the get go that this wouldn’t be a day of numbers, but if we did land a fish it would without a doubt be one of the biggest we’ve ever seen. We started at the lake and floated our way down, constantly casting heavy flies as far as we could to reach the far banks. The waters of this river are picturesque, but the clarity also means the fish can see you from a mile away so we knew we were in tough. What neither our guide, nor us anticipated was the number of other boats on the river that day. It bothered our guide but to us it didn’t seem like any more boats than we might see fishing back home.
I’ll kill the suspense now…we didn’t catch the big one. None of the anglers in any of the boats had any action all day. In fact, the only person to even get a sniff was none other than Roxy. She hooked into a huge brown trout, but had it come fight at the surface, splash an enormous amount of water around before eventually spitting the hook back in our direction. We might have been more upset, like our guide was, if we dwelled on this once in a lifetime trout that got away but it was lunchtime and Argentinians know a thing or two about riverside lunches.
After another day or two of exploring Bariloche our fingers were fully recovered from our previous climbing trip to Piedra Parada so we stocked up on oats, salami and pasta again (the staples of our camping diet) and got ready to spend 5 days in the alpine climbing at an area known as Frey. Our departure for the hike up to Frey was delayed slightly due to “la resaca”, aka hangover in Español. What was a boring night of packing took a turn when we joined two Chilean brothers and two Mendozans at our hostel for a drink. As I’ve mentioned before, no drink in South America is personal, so the beers circled the table until we were introduced to the Argentinian beverage of choice, Fernet and Coke. It was explained to us that this was a highly social drink that usually outlasts its imbibers. Fact. We were the first to drop but not before the brothers busted out guitar and Andean flute, an instrument that I’m still not quite sure of how it works for some incredibly captivating tunes. Eventually we hit the trail, which starts from the parking lot of one of the areas popular ski resorts, Cerro Catedral. It was a bit of a damp and cloudy day but we still had stellar views of a lake below us. Being Easter weekend there were lots of families out day hiking and enjoying the well used trails through massive old growth forests. Reminded us a lot of British Columbia in Autumn.
When we arrived at Lago Frey we actually could not see Lago Frey beyond the refugio. Nothing but cloud in every direction, but we did find the camping area marked by the individual stone walls constructed to defend against the winds up there. We found the biggest one we could, nice and high up on a ridge thinking we’d have the best views when the clouds cleared.
Lessons were learned from this rookie mistake. The wind doesn’t always blow the same way and good views mean exposure. Pretty sure we know this, and that this wasn’t a “rookie” mistake but just the case of a boy who found a big rock fort and had to camp there. That night we made multiple trips out into the sideways rain to re-secure the fly and spent the rest of the time praying the next gust of wind wouldn’t be the one that ripped the tent.
Safe to say we wouldn’t have been off climbing early the next day even if it had cleared. So after moving our tent to a lower and more sheltered (on all sides) location we spent most of the day pouring over the guidebook in the refugio and informing day hikers that there was in fact a lake less than 30 meters from where they sat, completely lost in the fog.
Just as the last of the day hikers started their way down the clouds began to dissipate and we saw our chance. There is a large spire looming over Refugio Frey, Aguja Frey, just a steep 10 minute hike away so we grabbed our gear, left our long johns on and headed for a short multipitch called Fisura de Jim.
Now that we’d actually had our first good look at this area, and so have you, I can explain what it’s all about. The little refugio below plays host to any and all types of outdoor enthusiasts, year round. The boundary to Cerro Catedral ski resort is just one valley over so the area sees backcountry skiers all winter. You can skate on the lake in the winter. The trail up, continues along one of the most popular hiking routes in the region and it is possible to link 5 different huts into a circuit. And of course, the countless granite rock spires that dominate the landscape are rich in history and have been where climbers come to test their mettle for decades. There are routes as close as a 10 minutes hike and as far as a full day away, they are almost all trad climbing and are notoriously sandbagged. We visited late in the season so we only saw one other group of climbers and a few groups of campers but in the summer the 30 person refugio and large camping area routinely fill up.
The next 3 days continued on like this but with improving weather. Having the sheltered cook shack and being able to eat in the refugio (aka where the wood burning stove was) made the cold evenings and mornings much more enjoyable so we’d usually put back a few coffees while letting the sun rise above the mountains. Sometime before noon we’d start our approach to the day’s climb.
If you were wondering what “sandbagged” climbs from earlier are…they’re routes that should be well within your ability, but result in you taking a fall and landing beside on your keister beside your belay partner while a school field trip looks on from outside the refugio.
Good news! My protection passed the test and I’m alive.
Our hike back to town was classic autumn colours so we decided to squeeze in one more activity before beelining it for Bolivia. We cycled a popular drive around the area known as Circuito Chico and stopped at one of the many lakeside craft breweries along the way. Craft beer, skiing, climbing, fishing, biking….dear God Watson I think they’re on to something!
For anyone we successfully made jealous, the next day we hopped on the first of two, 20 hour bus rides. The meals included were pop, chips and cookies (we’d just sworn off sugar after 4 weeks of the camping diet) and we got “Promocíon” priced seats for our second leg, which we learned means your seat is beside a woman who has a small child. Or in our case, surrounded by 3 women with multiple kids, who have sworn to eat only sugar. I feel terrible for enjoying this, but not as terrible as I did for laughing out loud when the kids running the aisles all got bounced onto the floor (shocker! It’s a bus and every town has speed bumps) and nursed goose eggs for a very quiet hour. It actually started out well, Bingo in a bus exists and Roxy was the victorious recipient of a bottle of vino.
Catch ya’ll in Bolivia, things are about to get salty!