Located in the northern most reaches of Patagonia, San Carlos de Bariloche is a scenic town in what is aptly called, Argentina’s Lake District. Surrounded by mountains and lakes, Bariloche is an outdoor destination, especially for hiking and skiing. Some even compare this Argentine town to the Swiss Alps. If you only have a few days to spend in Bariloche, don’t fret. The town is walkable, there’s a tasty food scene, breathtaking scenery and many easily accessible day hikes. Here’s how we recommend spending your time in Bariloche:
1. Go Hiking
Hiking is the true draw of Bariloche. With snow capped mountains, glacial lakes and national parks, the scenery can’t be beat. There are many hikes to choose from, but our top three day hikes include:
LLao Llao (pronounced “shao shao” by the locals) Here you can hike multiple trails throughout the Llao Llao peninsula. The trails lead you through lush forests and onto beautiful rocky beaches. This is an easy and leisurely day hike. The trails are largely flat, but you can take a quick hike up to Cerro Llao Llao for a panoramic view of the landscape. To get there: bus 20 runs the entire length of the city; catch it in the city center and get off at kilometer 25 (the last stop) to begin the hike.
Refugio Frey This is the number one hike in Bariloche. It’s a slow 2-3 hour ascent through scenic landscapes and vistas. The last hour of the hike involves some scrambling up to Refugio Frey, where you can admire the serenity of Laguna Tonchek. Allow 7-8 to complete the hike and check the bus schedule in advance to plan your return bus. To get there: Take Bus 55 from the center heading toward Catedral. The hike starts from the parking lot of the last stop.
Companario Hike the short but steep trail up to Cerro Companario to see for yourself why Bariloche is the Land of the Lakes. (There is also the option to take the chairlift to the top.) The view at the top is truly spectacular. The hike up takes less than 45 minutes, but you’ll want to spend some time at the top to adequately admire the surroundings. To get there: Take bus 20 and get off at kilometer 18 to begin the jaunt up to the top.
To check the bus schedules go to https://www.mibus.com.ar/bariloche/and click on the bus line (linea) you need, i.e. linea 20 or linea 55. Most of the bus stops are indicated by the number of kilometers they are away from the center or “centro.”
2. Explore the Town on Foot
Meander around the center of town. Wonder in and out chocolate shops (and eat some chocolate, of course), peruse artisanal goods, and sip local craft beer at a brewpub.
3. Try Some Innovative Twists on Local Cuisine
We were really excited to see some creative spins on regional ingredients taking place in the city. The chefs at the following restaurants are truly innovating Argentine staples and the fusion of flavors are a success.
Hotel Nativo The Chef at Hotel Nativo is using Argentine favorites in new and fun ways. The typical grab-and-go empanada is brought to new levels with a flaky crust and tender braised matambre filling (a thin cut of beef unique to Argentina). The country’s beloved ‘dulce de leche’ makes its debut in a deliciously crunchy and creamy creme brûlée. The menu is filled with many delicious and unique concoctions to try.
Quiven The couple who own this restaurant invite you into their home where you dine on their second floor overlooking the water. The divine tasting menu highlights the freshest local and seasonal ingredients, like trout and lamb, and uses them in unexpected ways. It’s a sophisticated and intimate dining experience where the dishes taste as good as they look. The tasting menu changes with the availability of ingredients and the chef’s inspiring imagination.
Raices Restrobar Racies Restrobar is a laid back bar where comfort food is served with a fine touch. In a meat centric town, this restaurant is a great choice for vegetarians and meat eaters alike. There are many delicious meat-free options to choose from like veggie and falafel burgers. Don’t miss the provelititia, a spin on the classic Argentine proveleta (grilled cheese round) but in highly addictive cheesy bite-sized form. You can also listen to live music here every Friday and Saturday night.
4. Enjoy the Lake Views
For unspoiled lake views, head west of the city where it’s much quieter. There are dozens of hotels here that have perched themselves on the hillside, gaining them epic vistas of Nahuel Huapi Lake. If you’re lucky, you may even catch sight of a rainbow in the water’s mist.
The historical Hotel Tunquelén is a peaceful retreat offering striking vantage points of the lake and ethereal grounds. Make sure to catch sunset over the lake.
Our First Trip To Bariloche
5 days in Bariloche: November, 2015
After a 7-hour bus ride, and a fairly painless border crossing into Argentina, we arrived in Bariloche. The city is Latin America’s attempt of the Alps—a picturesque city right on the lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains. High-end outdoor shops, tourist agencies serving hot coco, and dozens of artesian chocolate stores line the downtown streets.
We arrived to our hostel after walking over 2 miles with our heavy backpacks. Our backs drenched with sweat, we were excited to finally get to rest for a bit. Unfortunately, our hostel was experiencing water problems and could not accommodate us. Fortunately, they had another property, outside of town, which had space for us. We weighed our options…any last minute booking in this town would be very expensive. We really wanted to stay in town but the woman at the front desk promised us that buses come every 20 minutes and there was a stop right in front of the other hotel. We opted to take the other room. They called a cab for us and paid for the charge. The other hotel was going to honor our initial reservation and not charge us the actual amount of the new room we were given. This new place was amazing—2 bedrooms, 2 full bathrooms, a kitchen, living/dining areas, 2 full couches, and amazing views of the lake and mountains!
We decided to book one more night in this hotel as they promised to charge us the original rate of 250 pesos. The price of the full apartment they gave us was 1000 pesos a night…what a bargain!
We tried to take a bus back into the city to check out some tours for the next day and to buy some groceries. We waited for 30 minutes and had no success. There were two buses but they drove right past our stop since they were completely full. We had to call a taxi…shit!
Once in the city we went to a few agencies and drafted a rough plan of how we would spend the next several days. Then we walked all over town trying to find a grocery store. We finally found one on the other part of town. The prices were high and the quality was low. By the time we walked back to the center of town, with all of our groceries, it was nearing 9. We had wanted to go out to eat but at this point we were tired and just wanted to head home. We had to wait 45 minutes for the bus…after such a long day we finally got home around 10:30!
The next morning we caught a bus into the city around 9-930 as we were going to catch another bus to Cerro Catedral where we would hike to Refugio Frey. The bus was supposed to come at 10:10 and we got to the station at 10 sharp to ensure we caught it. The bus never showed…we waited, and waited, and waited. Finally we just agreed to catch the next one, which came the following hour. While we were waiting we ran into Robin, a guy we had met during our travel through the Bolivian Jungle. We planned on ditching our plans at 11:30, but the bus finally arrived at 11:25. It was a short 30-minute drive to the sky resort.
Neither of us knew exactly what to expect for the hike up to Refugio Frey. Different agencies told us different things and travel blogs provided little help. We were hoping for a 3-4 hour hike but we soon discovered our day would be much longer than initially expected. During some months its possible to take a cable car to the top and to hike down but there was still too much snow so the cable cars were not operating.
The hike up the mountain was gorgeous. The views were beautiful. We walked along the mountains and lake for most of the hike. After dozens of bridges and water crossings we finally made it to the halfway point. We had another 2 hours of the hike and it was getting later in the day. We really wished we had caught that earlier bus! We stopped to eat our pre-packed lunches on a couple of logs overlooking the landscape.
The second half of the hike was much more technical with steeper elevations and rockier terrain. We tried to pick up our pace as much as we could. It became apparent that we would not be making it into town this evening. We arrived at Refugio Frey, the top of the mountain, after 4 hour of hiking. The views were stunning—a glacier lake surrounded by snow mountain peeks. We had to traverse a very steep snowy incline to make it to the Refugio. After taking in the views, eating another snack, and refilling our water bottles we started our descent.
We hustled during our entire downhill trek. We enjoyed running downhill over the rocks and alongside the stunning lake and mountains. Sylvie swallowed a bug while running with her mouth open. She was very worried it may lay eggs inside of her, but I assured her she was safe. After we had a good laugh we continued downwards. We were able to make it down in 2 hours—half the time it took us to get up. We were trying to catch the bus back to Bariloche, which I figured left every hour on the hour. We finally made it to the base around 6:00, in time for the bus. Sylvie bought some French fries to reward her efforts and I relaxed. We were dismayed to learn that somehow we managed to miss our bus, which left at 6:15. We thought we were sitting right in front of the bus stop but apparently the bus leaves from a different location from where it drops off. We would have to wait another hour before the next bus would leave. Between trying to catch a bus into town in the morning, then waiting 1.5 hours for the bus to Cerro Catedral, and then another hour for this missed bus we spend over 3 hours waiting on busses…ugh!
We ended up hitching a ride with someone along with 2 other people. The two other people were a recently married couple on their honeymoon. We talked for the brief 25-minute drive. They were just getting over being sick and starting to finally enjoy their vacation. They were traveling from Buenos Aires. She warned us about being safe there. We all asked to be dropped off at a grocery store near our hotels (we were actually staying very close to each other). They helped us pick out a bottle of wine—the wine that they served at their wedding.
We spent our third day in Bariloche catching up with family on skype and trying to book tickets for our next bus ride to El Chalten- a 31-hour ride. The bus terminal, located outside of the city is a 2.5 mile walk from the city center. We decided to walk to bus station to get some exercise and arrived there just to learn that the ticket office was closed for the afternoon. We walked there only to turn around and do the same walk back to the city center. We did have a turn of events though and luck was in our favor as we stopped by the 'Active Patagonia' office and some staff members were finishing up with a meeting and opened for us when they are supposed to be closed on Sunday's. We were able to book an excursion to the black glacier for the following day in Nahuel Huapi National Park
We met the other members of our tour group at the tour office at 9 am. One couple was from France, another couple from the UK, and a solo traveler from Israel. We talked with them for the some of the 2.5 hour bus ride. When we arrived at the park we went to view the black glacier. It is lodged between two mountains and borders a lake of a beautiful teal blue color with icebergs floating in it. The glacier is black in color from dirt that has accumulated on top of it. The glacier is retreating and melting at a dramatic rate. It's retreated several hundred feet within the last couple decades, melting and feeding into the lake below. While we were taking in the views of the lake we heard loud crashing sounds in the distance that we assumed to be thunder- the weather was very overcast and drizzling. Our guide told us that the noises were actually the sounds of snow and ice breaking and sliding down the mountain tops and tumbling over steep cliffs. He informed us that the name of the tallest mountain in the park is called El Tronador (thunder mountain) because it sounds like thunder.
After viewing the glacier we set out on our 10km trek to a view point of Alerce Glacier and it's waterfalls. While hiking we talked further with the our tour members in our group, comparing and contrasting our countries and cultures. It's so interesting to hear other about people's stories and experiences- it shows that there's no one "right" path in life.
As we hiked the weather fluctuated between sunny, windy, misty, cold and rainy- we had heard that the weather in Patagonia would be like this- we were shedding and adding layers all throughout our hike to accommodate the changing weather. Our guide pointed out some native plant life as we walked including a plant resembling bamboo that is used for ski poles. Right before reaching the view point of Alerce Glacier our guide advised us that we may want to put on rain coats as the wind can cause the waterfalls to spray cold water and we wouldn't be under the tree coverage anymore. He sure was right, we could see the wind carrying the water from the waterfalls horizontally through the air, spraying freezing cold rain that hurt when it hit our skin. The waterfalls were beautiful and fed by melting snow and ice at the top of the mountains. Very cool. The hike took about 4 hours and we finished just in time as it started to pour.
Later that night after a disappointing Mexican dinner, we were waiting for the bus back to our hotel and ran into a couple from our hike earlier that day. They live in Poland, though John Paul is from France, originally from Colombia. They were so kind to offer us a place to stay if we decide to visit Warsaw in Poland!
The following morning we set out to the bus station to purchase tickets for El Chalten. While waiting for the bus to the bus station we ran into the couple we had met a few days earlier after our trek to Refugio Frey. Traveling is a small world sometimes! At the bus station we were unable to book a bus for El Chalten- it leaves every other day and not on the day we needed, so we booked a bus for El Calafate, 2.5 hours south of El Chalten. After arriving in El Calafate we will have to hop on a bus to go back to El Chalten.
We finished up at the bus station, out (3,490 pesos) $220, thanks to the blue dollar, for the tickets, and caught a local bus heading to Cerro Campanaria, about a 45-minute ride. On the bus we met two girls, one from the U.S and one from Hong Kong, traveling for 11-months with a Christian organization. With their organization they had traveled through Central American and down South America to Argentina. They volunteered through out their time traveling. We chatted with them for a bit and they recommended a hike at Cerro Campanero that they had done a couple days earlier.
We headed the girl's suggestion and hiked the super steep trail for 30 minutes until arriving at most unbelievable views at the top of Campanaria. At the look out point, we were surrounded by lakes and snow covered mountains for as far as we could see. Typical of Patagonia's unpredictable weather, it started to snow flurry in the midst of the sunny (and very windy) afternoon weather.
We walked/flailed our way down the steep slopes back to the bottom of the mountain, saw our bus whizzing by and sprinted to the bus stop making it just in time!
We spent our last evening enjoying Argentinian steak at El Boliche de Alberto--a restaurant that had gotten very good reviews for the quality and quantity of its meat.