San Carlos De Bariloche, or just Bariloche, is a beautiful town in Argentina on the shores of Lake (Lago) Nahuel Huapi. Looking like something from a child’s story book, Bariloche is picture perfect. The lake is a stunning deep blue color, especially when it reflects the sky. The town is surrounded by mountains and the architecture has a definite alpine feel.
A destination in all seasons, Bariloche has a lot to offer. With peaks reaching up to 2000 meters, in the winter it is home to several ski resorts including the largest in the southern hemisphere, Cerro Catedral. It has over 60 miles (100 kilometers) of ski runs and is easily accessible at only 12 miles (20 kilometers) out of town.
Bariloche in Summer
And when summer comes in December, the snow melts and it becomes an outdoor paradise. Opportunities for climbing, mountain biking, trout fishing, horseback riding and our favorite, hiking, abound. Lake Nahuel Huapi is glacial, and at 650 square kilometers and 454 meters deep, it doesn’t get above 57°F (14°C) in temperature in the summer. So swimming is not so popular!
The town of Bariloche is located within the boundaries of the Nahuel Huapi National Park (one of the seven National Parks in Patagonia). There are two other towns also within the National Park Boundaries, San Martin de los Andes and Villa Angostura. Villa Angostura also has a ski resort and some fantastic hiking. San Martin de los Andes can be reached via the Road of the Seven Lakes, a scenic drive or bike ride, which is part of the Circuito Grande (The Big Circuit) a popular and scenic tourist route.
Other than these nearby towns, Bariloche is not close to much of anything. It is 1000 miles (1621 km) from Buenos Aries, 905 miles (1449 km) north of El Calafate another popular tourist stop in Patagonia to visit the Perito Moreno Glacier and Monte Fitz Roy. Ushuaia, Argentina’s most southern city, often referred to as “the end of the Earth”, is 1300 miles (2178 km) South. Ruta 40, one of the few roads through Patagonia passes through Bariloche. Here is a virtual tour of Ruta 40. The closest, large towns to Bariloche are actually in Chile and it is an option to travel to these towns, see below.
So most people visiting Bariloche are coming for the natural beauty and activities in Bariloche. So what is there to do?
Chocolate in Bariloche
Calle Mitre is the main commercial street in town. You can find the usual tourist souvenirs but it is also the capital of Argentina’s chocolate industry. There is a wide selection of chocolate shops with all variety of chocolates. Perhaps the most well known is Mamuschka Chocolate. One of the specialities are chocolates filled with Dulche de Leche, Argentina’s version of caramel. (If you are there when it is busy, be sure to pick a number for service.)
Dining in Bariloche
There are plenty of dining options within town and on Exequel Bustillo, the main road along the lake.
If you are looking for something special Cassis and Butterfly are two highly rated restaurants featuring seven course Patagonian set menus. You can try all of the local flavors and wine. A note about dining out in Argentina- meals are leisurely affairs, with meals taking 1-2 hours at least. Dinner is eaten late, with many restaurants not opening before 8 pm, and I estimate peak dining is about 10 pm. This flies in the face of all those gurus telling us not to eat late, yet other than ensuring no one starts early in the morning, there seem to be no ill effects. You will need a reservation for most places for dinner, and some nicer or more popular places reserve for lunch. The national dish is meat! Parillas or grills are the most common restaurant around and it is hard to find a bad piece of meat in Argentina.
One of our favorite meals was at a small family run place, La Salamandra Pulperia. Use Trip Advisor for more information in English The food is all made in house, many according to family recipes, and the empanadas are a house specialty. The service was friendly, the decor eclectic and the whole experience is like going to a friend’s house for dinner. We ordered sparkling water, (agua con gas) and it was served using an old fashioned seltzer bottle. The food was great and it still stands out as a great memory from our visit.
Heading out of town
The Circuito Chico (little circuit) begins by following Exequiel Bustillo, running along the lake out of town. (You can pick up both a map and a tourist brochure highlighting this route and there is a bus along this route.) It is a popular bike path. I won’t go into too much detail but the highlights include:
- The Llao Llao Hotel, (7 miles, 12 kilometers) from town, a beautiful luxury hotel overlooking the lake. A popular destination for high tea or lunch in the Winter Garden.
- Colonia Suiza, the original Swiss colony settled here in 1901. Features a variety of Swiss restaurants and architecture.
- Cerro Catedral- the ski resort. In the summer you can ride the chair lift. There is hiking in this area including the popular hike to Refugio Grey (approximately 6.5 hours roundtrip).
Villa Angostura and Bosque de Arrayan
We did a day trip to Villa Angostura and a hike through the Arrayan (Myrtle) Forest. You can take a bus from the main bus station in town to Puerto Angostura, the hike’s departure point. There is a small admission charge to enter at the visitor center. The hike itself is 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) one way. The scenery along the way is stunning, you are walking down a small peninsula, the water changes colours several times from a crystal clear green to a very pleasing turquoise blue as you finally reach the end of the hike. Along the way you pass through forest, scenic viewpoints, another dark blue lake, and of course the highlight, the Arrayan Forest.
When you reach the end, which is the lake’s shore, You can catch the boat back to Bariloche (check departure times before you go). In our case, we had made an early start from Bariloche, taken the bus around to Villa Angostura and then the local bus to the trailhead. When we reached the lake’s shore and the boat dock, the boat was still some 4 hours away from departure, so we returned via the same path we had come planning to eat in Villa Angostura and catch the 8:30 pm bus back to Bariloche.
Well as they say, this is where the best laid plans . . . We completed the hike and made it back to town by about 5 pm. where we found everything was closed! That’s right, remember my warning above that Argentinean’s eat late, well lunch was just ending and dinner didn’t begin for another 3+ hours. Luckily we had packed our own lunch on the hike. We ended up eating ice cream for dinner (feeling a bit like little kids) but hey it was open! Then we caught the bus back. By the time we got to Bariloche at 10:30 pm, we were too tired to shower and go to dinner, so ice cream was it!
We highly recommend the hike, but plan your logistics a bit better than we did!
You can also take a boat from Bariloche to the dock near the Arrayan Forest. There is a tea house (cafe) here that serves light meals. The boat usually stops at Victoria Island, where you can take an optional chair lift to Cerra Bella and get a panoramic view of the island and Lake Nahuel Huapi. Using the boat in either direction allows you to walk one way, or if you prefer you can round trip on the boat.
Getting to Bariloche
As Bariloche is not terribly close to anything, many people fly. There are flights from Buenos Aries, Mendoza, El Calafate, and Ushuaia. Some flights are seasonal.
By road you can reach Bariloche on Ruta 40, or many people arrive from Chile over the Antonio Samore’ Pass or through a boat/bus crossing through the lakes.
Cruce Andino runs the boat/bus crossing. It is a 1 or 2 day crossing depending on both your preference and the time of year. The 1 day crossing is only available in summer. This is a combination of lake crossings and bus trips between the lakes. You can buy a ticket in advance for all of your transport and most local tourist offices offer an option.
Due to the time of year we were there, the two day option was the only option and unfortunately it did not work with our schedule. We took the overland option, via bus from Chile. The route goes through Osorno (home of the Osorno Volcano a beautiful snow capped, cone-shaped volcano rising out of a dark blue lake). The scenery was beautiful, and very pleasant to just ride along in the bus and take it all in. The trip takes about 6 hours from Osorno. You can continue on by bus to Puerto Montt or Puerto Varas.
Renting a Car?
It is very difficult to cross the Argentina/Chile border with a rental car. I would go so far as to say this is not really an option. The bus is cheap and comfortable, and luggage is stored securely underneath the bus and you are given a claim check for your bags. The actual border crossing was quite the experience. Heading into Argentina was relatively quick and painless. The bus unloads, they scan the luggage (like in an airport) and you pass through immigration. Returning to Chile, not so quick and not so painless. This crossing took several hours. All of our luggage was hand searched. Luckily we were not there at a busy time! There are horror stories of this border crossing taking hours! Do not try it on a long weekend or holiday. You are likely to spend most of the day at the crossing.
And a warning!
You can manage in Bariloche without a car using the bus for most destinations. If you do choose to rent a car, DO NOT leave your belongings in the car anywhere. There are stories everywhere and it is a known problem of people stealing from rental cars. This includes following people from the rental car office waiting until they stop for dinner or lunch (before checking in) and stealing their luggage. Leave your luggage at the hotel not in the car!
Further Information about Bariloche
There is a lot of detailed planning information for Bariloche available online (especially compared to other parts of Patagonia). It can be very busy during the summer peak between January and February. Here are some helpful links for planning:
- Club Andino (for hiking and backcountry information) they have an office in town. This is a network of alpine clubs across Argentina. Use google translate and you can translate the site- there is one for Bariloche. Their facebook page is in English
- Nahuel Huapi National Park office (in town near the Civic Center)
- Frommer’s Online
Just writing this, I want to return to Bariloche for more of the fantastic hiking in an area just full of stunning lakes and mountains. It is a beautiful destination and for Patagonia, this is the most developed tourism infrastructure you will find, yet it still manages to retain its charm and natural beauty.