A somewhat untidy city whose outskirts to the south contain what really are small shanty towns, Bariloche (as the city is familiarly known) nevertheless has a pretty cathedral, along with dozens of hotels and hostels suiting every pocket, various chocolate-shops (a real local specialty) and stunning vistas of Lago Nahuel Huapi.
Bariloche is both a summer and a winter resort. In winter, it forms the base for thousands of people from Brazil and Argentina seeking to ski at Cerro Catedral, which as its name suggests is a mountain with several remarkably shaped spires about a dozen miles southwest of the city. The resort is well-known enough that several Brazilian airlines fly non-stop to Bariloche from cities such as Sao Paulo in the June-October period, which is wintertime in Patagonia.
Argentina likes to boast that Cerro Catedral is the biggest ski resort in the southern hemisphere. While Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island might like to debate the point, close to the large skiing centre of The Remarkables as it is, Cerro Catedral has its own large ski-resort village, Villa Catedral. The village lies directly at the foot of the many ski slopes that line the mid-to-lower stretches of the mountain. The resort is presumably a hopping place in winter, but in mid-January high summer, it is almost dead.
In mid-January, at the height of Patagonia’s summer, Bariloche has become a traditional vacation spot for Argentinean high-school students who are about to take their final exams and ― a word of heartfelt warning ― the centre of the city becomes almost unbearably busy in the mid-to-late-evening hours, as well as in late morning. If you decide to base yourself in Bariloche, make sure you rent a car (rental cars are cheap and available in reasonable quantities) so that you can get out of the city every morning as soon as possible.
Apart from the cathedral and a kitschy tourism center-municipal hall complex, the most notable features in the centre of Bariloche are several highly commercialized streets which parallel the shore of the lake and the very busy lakefront road. Traffic jams are constant during the day and evening in the centre of the city and parking is hard to find: Take note. Another note: Bariloche is hilly, built as it is on a steep slope down to the lake.
In addition to cafes, pharmacies, lots of hotels (some quite big) and even video arcades, the city-centre streets contain rows of stores selling chocolate, dulce de leche (the condensed-milk-and-sugar caramel spread that is Argentina’s national passion) and alfajores. A must-try Argentinean delicacy, alfajores are filled cookies that come in various flavors, often containing varieties of dulce de leche.
Alfajores can be found in any Argentinean supermarket. Most are bland commercial brands that are produced on a vast scale in industrial bakeries for mass consumption, but the locally made, often home-baked alfajores you can buy in the chocolate shops of Bariloche (and in El Bolson) are a delight to the taste-buds.
Also prominent on Bariloche’s busy city-centre streets are many of the tourist-trap shops selling locally themed kitsch that one finds in busy resorts, and travel agencies that do brisk business selling tickets for boat trips on Lago Nahuel Huapi, local coach tours and long-distance transport on Argentina’s vast network of luxury double-deck buses.
(Far more people travel by bus over the vast distances separating Argentina’s cities than travel by air: Even though flying is relatively cheap by northern-hemisphere standards, and Argentina’s airlines operate a double-standard fare system that charges much less for bookings made locally than bookings made from abroad, it is still expensive to the average Argentinean.)
It is just as well that Lago Nahuel Huapi has jealously protected national-park status, because for many miles on either side of Bariloche ― particularly to the west ― hostels, guest-houses and other tourism developments line the main road in a scruffy, higgledy-piggledy line reminiscent of nothing so much as the tracts of American urban sprawl that are so much and so rightly maligned today.
By Chris Kjelgaard
This is one of a series of features on Argentina’s Lake District that www.AirlinesAndDestinations.com is publishing in August 2009.