“West Side” – Bariloche & the Andes

Arguably my least favourite part of travelling is the travelling itself. But I’ve developed a mantra as a coping strategy: It’s all another experience. This is good, I tell myself; it’ll be funny later.

After spending a sun-kissed Sunday afternoon watching polo in a field, eating tea and cakes and visiting an exhibition of vintage cars with our newly formed gang of Chubutenses, I was rather content and laid back about my plans to travel on the overnight bus to Bariloche. I’d been to the bus terminal midweek to consult about coaches and times and so cockily rocked up at 10pm ready to travel with my gigantic backpack/sleeping bag/body bag. However, if I’ve learnt anything on this trip is that even the best laid plans of mice and me go horrifically awry and today would be no exception. A small coach would be travelling to the cordillera and there was no room in the inn for a little one. Opting for the laugh and not the cry, I went back to the Gaiman with my tail between my legs ready for take two the next day. At least my bag was already packed.

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View from my hostel room. Ddim yn shabby

I finally arrived in Bariloche at midday on Tuesday, giving me approximately 28 hours in the city before my bus to Trevelin for the town’s annual celebrations the next day. Travelling solo I only have myself to blame, but also I only have myself to please and I was determined to make the most of the precious hours in the city. This is usually easier said than done, when we combine dodgy directions with my dubious internal GPS system. I dumped my bag in the room, showered and followed the sketchy advice of the hostel manager who led me to a bike rental centre 18km out of the city, where they had absolutely no intention of renting out bikes to ditsy tourists at 3pm. Losing count of whether I’m not following Plan B, C or D, I found a map of a cable car route and opted to walk up Cierro Campanario, finding myself the only one in this silent uphill struggle, surrounded by trees and birds and butterflies. Nearer the top, I followed the distant bumble of tourists where the teleferico landed. I got to the top, and immediately, the 15 hours on the bus and the whole palaver that preceded this jaunt was worthwhile. The lake district is spectacular. It’s almost hard to believe that what you see is real: vast lakes, high snow-topped mountains and a panoramic view that is incomprehensibly beautiful. I stood, sweaty and stunned by the sights, soaking in what I could and wishing I could bottle, record or pocket this view for later.

On a roll I jumped on the number 20 to the end of the line, kilometre 25, and decided to explore Llao llao and what I could of the Circuito Chico before the sky turned its lights off. Llao llao hotel overlooks the most picturesque lake and is home to a golfer’s utopia. I had a funny five minutes where I toyed with the idea of taking up the sport, to enjoy delights like these. Maybe when I retire. For now, I’ll stand and appreciate the beauty without hacking up the greenest of greens with a Big Bertha. I took one of the shorter routes in the national park to explore some of the lakes and forests, in relative calmness and solitude, only to be met by hoards of boat trippers at the bus stop to head back to the centre. I spent the evening nipping in and out of the shops, drinking Mamoushka hot chocolate (basically melted chocolate, thick as custard, à la Madrid, minus the churros) and eating fish in a restaurant on my lonesome, avoiding the pitying stares and tucking into my food, happy as Larry.

After a quiet night in an even quieter (borderline eerie) hostel, I rose with the sun and couldn’t resist going for a long run along the shore of the lake, stretching out on the pebbles afterwards, trying and failing to take a photo to justify the specialness of this place. With time constraints limiting my options and because I love a service bus, I decided to visit Lake Gutierrez, 20 minutes away, where I met two Spanish girls. We strolled, chatted and sat between families and their picnics, watching paddle boarders traversing the lake. I took advantage of the mid November sunshine and followed the many teenagers wading thigh-deep in chilly water, drying off and shooting back to the city, on one bus to catch another, to catch another.

I eventually arrived in Trevelin at 10.30pm, five hours and two bus journeys later. No complaints this time. I would pay to do that journey again, if only for the spectacular fuschia of the sky above the Andes at sunset. I was handed a cup of tea by Nia and Gwion as I arrived in their ‘hen Ty Ysgol’ home, nestled between the Welsh chapel and the primary school. Yet another moment where being thousands of miles away from home feels like one big fib. The next day we’d be climbing Craig Goch, with members of the Welsh community, alongside dozens of rifleros and gauchos on horseback to commererate the birthday of Trevelin. On this date, 25th November, 1885 Welsh settlers, accompanied by Colonel Fontana, travelling from “East Side” Welsh Patagonia (Y Dyffryn) found the land of produce, of potential, of promise, that they desperately sought after. As the story goes, they reached the top of Craig Goch they stood in wonder at the lush green pastures of the valley below, proclaiming this to be “Cwm Hyfryd”; a very lovely valley indeed.

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Ar ben CRAIG GOCH gyda’r rifleros

The climb took over two hours, spotting robins and quartz and great mulleins en route. An alien, blazing November sun punished my rookie preparation, draining my water bottle and leaving my back crispy and red while we waited at the top, feeding the five thousand (there were three of us, but we were starving) with sandwiches and five bitty oreos I found in my bag. We waited at the peak, under a weathered Argentinian flag overlooking Bryn Hyfryd, for the hundreds that would follow us up, on foot and on horseback. A two year old girl, in a gaucha-style beret was amongst the first to reach the top, hand gripped in her grandmother’s. Then came many a Davies, Jones and Hughes. The surname conversation is one I have had over and over in the valley, as everybody shares their piece of the ancestry jigsaw with the tourist. Then came a Lloyd, Sian Lloyd, weather girl, to you and me, followed by one man who had made the trip from Rawson, 750km away, on foot. He later told me he would be making the same trip back. I asked if the return trip was entirely necessary, that he had proved his point, but he had his reasons and with that he dragged Sian Lloyd to the cliff edge for a photo. As I stood taking a photo on her iPhone, I could almost hear the tinkle of the one screw he had loose dropping to the ground some 200m below. I thought I was going to capture her death on her own iPhone.

Trevelin’s birthday celebrations continued over the weekend, good-and-proper Argentinian style. Friday presented us with a village carnival crossed with a stampede, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Every zumba dancer, schoolchild, police van, fishing vehicle was out, marching the march, as was the military, with their stonking big guns and camouflage gear. If you’ve ever wondered what Uncle Bulgaria looks like with a massive rifle, look no further. Trevelin has got it all. Then came the combine harvesters and hundreds of horses, very nearly squishing the toddlers scuttling about underfoot, in a parade that sticks its middle finger up to health and safety but is undeniably colourful and fantastically fun. Speeches and national anthems were said and sung, and a red violin donated by Sian Lloyd triggered a new initiative that sees the youngsters of Patagonia receive actual musical instruments to play with. What we might find hard to believe is that things we take for granted, such as instruments, toys, books, are not so easy to come by. This is an eye opener, and my eyes are growing wider every day.

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Trevelin, the “mill town” in the Andes.

As with every good celebration in Patagonia, an asado was held in the school gym on Saturday night, organized by youngsters, who also served, cleaned up, danced and entertained at the event. I cannot praise some of the youngsters that I’ve met here highly enough. They muck in, work hard and stand up for things that they believe in, with image and coolness out the window. My opinion means nothing, but for what it’s worth I think they are the coolest. In a night of meat and folk songs, the highlight of the night for me was the Pheonix Nights-style keyboard player, well into his 80s, who had pre-set a playlist on his keyboard, playing a mish-mash of cumbia, flamenco and 80s classics, to which we attempted to replicate our latino cousins’ rhythms in a brightly lit sportshall. As said gentleman took off for a well needed break, I had flashbacks of year 7 music classes, where we hammered the Demo button, hovering our fingers inches off the keys as we played our best air-piano. I watched as he stepped off the stage, his “live music” still playing, but no matter, this playlist was a belter, apparently.

I will forever remember how we shared your day, on the 25th of November, and just two days later, I saw in my 25th year of life, on a night-bus, gifted the tastiest chocolate alfajor of my life, leaving you and heading back to the valley, sleep deprived and grumpy (due to the drivers refusal to stop in Gaiman – another story for another day involving insurance policies and brick-lobbing louts)…

Happy birthday to you, lovely Trevelin, in the lovely, lovely Cordillera. Or as they say in Patagonia, Penblwydd Llawen. I hope you enjoy many more.

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