Postcard from Argentina: part three

By | Category: Travel destinations

Kaye’s constant quest for adventure has taken her back to Argentina – the land of gauchos, glaciers, football, tango and beef

Continued from last time


I’d been based in Buenos Aires for three weeks caught up in the political intrigues (conservative Mauricio Macri may have taken office but his Peronist predecessor, fiery leftist Cristina Fernandez, still has her – very vocal –  supporters) when I found myself ready to explore more of Argentina.

Or in the words of the wonderful Michael Palin:“As soon as life looks predictable, or secure or straight forward, I hop off to one side, lured by whatever it is I’ve never done before.”

I’d seen colonial Salta and Mendoza – famed for its Malbec, Argentina’s signature grape which is responsible for the lush, dark red wines we all know and love – in the north last time around, but I wasn’t so au fait with the bottom half of the country. And so I had my next destination: the south and more specifically Patagonia.

After all you can’t go to Argentina and not visit Patagonia. Well you can obviously, and I managed it last year, but you shouldn’t because this is the land that blew Bruce Chatwin (author of In Patagonia, a tome that revolutionised travel writing) away with its jagged peaks, glaciers, vast and empty steppes and stunning national parks.

I felt a compulsion to see for myself at least some of the region, despite my Mother’s plea: “But you’ve only just got to Buenos Aires. Why can’t you just stay put there – where you’ve made friends – for a bit longer?”

I understand her stance. Last year was a turbulent year of travel (Kenya, Tunisia, Sharm el Sheikh, Paris at al) but I refuse to be intimated into standing still. I intend to keep on exploring and, as a Just About Travel reader,  chances are you do too.

Why? Well I could trot out that old line about spreading the socio-economic benefits of tourism, but the real reason is because travelling is the most fun we ever have. Nothing else holds the same potential for excitement, discovery or challenge. Sure travel is never risk free, but I’m not sure staying at home is either. Argentina is a fascinating, fascinating country and I intend to make the most of it.

Hence I ended up packing my bags and boarding a 24 hour bus to Bariloche (if you’re feeling flush, you could fold yourself into a plane for an hour). My bus journey may have been long but it was anything but boring. Argentines claim that their country invented public bus. The people have a point. There might be a lot wrong with Argentina – read corruption, crime, strike action and hyperinflation – but the country’s long distance buses (where beds, booze, food and films come as standard) are outstanding. National Express would do well to take note. Little wonder then that I arrived in Bariloche with a big smile on my face…

Bariloche is the gateway to Argentina’s Lake District – often called ‘Little Switzerland’ partly due to the similarity of its landscape (think mountains, lakes and rivers ) but also because of its architectural style. In cities such as San Carlos de Bariloche and San Martin de los Andes (which, compared with its cousin, is smaller, quieter, more remote and for now less touristed), alpine chalets, church steeples and statues of Saint Bernard dogs abound. So much so that you’d be forgiven for thinking you were back in Europe.

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The Swiss inspired architecture is down to the influx of German and Swiss immigrants in the late 19th/early 20th  century which meant that new cultures, tastes and styles were rapidly woven into social fabric. And nowhere is the Swiss influence more apparent than in the town’s dining habits: you’ll find fondue restaurants, beer halls and chocolate shops on every single street.

But the Lake District’s real appeal lies beyond its cities.The region is as generous with its national parks – here’s looking at Lanin and Nahuel Huapi, arguably the grandfather of all Argentina’s national parks – as it is with its chocolate stores.

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No guidebook could prepare me for my first glimpse of the sheer, unspoilt beauty of Nahuel Huapi. An outdoor enthusiast’s playground, the park is perfect for those who want to hike, cycle or simply enjoy the quiet after the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires.

The hills are steep (trust me when I say that if you climb a hill in Argentina’s Lake District, you’ll know about it!) but the vistas are worth it: the only views you won’t see are high rise skylines and bright city lights… It’s truly a region of great beauty offering the kind of complete relaxation, I’d thought was impossible

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After a day of hiking in the heat that left me clutching my heart, I had a commendably early – for Argentina – night and arose early the next morning to drive the La Ruta de los Siete Lagos (Seven Lakes Route), a Lake District classic. The scenery – all pine forests, crystal clear lakes and snow capped mountains – is the kind that landscape artists would kill for.

The Lake District is perhaps best known as a winter destination (the mountains sometimes exceed 2m of snow at the end of the season), but it’s also become an increasingly popular destination in summer – when scores of Argentine high school students flock here to celebrate the end of their exams.

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But it’s not all sweetness and light in the Lake District. Indeed the region has an un-deniably dark past, having become a refuge (together with Chile’s Villa Baviera) for fleeing Nazis at the end of the Second World War. Argentina’s dictator at the time, Juan Peron, was after the expertise of Nazi scientists (as were officials in both Britain and America). Subsequently around 12,000 Germans were welcomed – no questions asked – to Argentina between 1946 and 1952. And many – such as former SS captain Erich Priebke, labour camp commander Josef Schwammberger and Josef Mengele (aka the ‘doctor’ of Auschwitz)  settled in the foothills of the Andes mountains.

What’s more it transpires that, somewhat disturbingly, local residents not only knew that Nazi war criminals were living among them (Preikbe didn’t even take the trouble to change his name) but accepted it. I spoke to several citizens who explained that the Nazis were judged on their contribution to Bariloche – which was by all accounts excellent (they established climbing clubs, taught at local schools and played an active part in the community) – and not on the way they behaved before arriving in Argentina. Nonetheless it continues to trouble me to think of fleeing Nazis living out their lives in beautiful Bariloche – whose pretty pine forests reportedly inspired Walt Disney to create Bambi.

That Argentina  – which generously opened its arms to Jewish immigration during World War 11 (Argentina is the sixth largest Jewish community in the world, and the biggest in Latin America)  – was also a sanctuary for Nazi criminals is one of the many, many conundrums of this country.

Reluctant to turn in while pondering this painful paradox, I went for a stroll around Bariloche stopping off for the obligatory helping of helado (Argentina makes some of the best ice cream in the world) and liked the Lake District no less by night than by day.

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I had five fabulous days like this, pottering around Patagonia pretending it was work, before returning to the road to Buenos Aires, feeling gloriously restored.

My message? Don’t be put off by the Lake District’s unsavoury past: go and see it for yourself. But don’t just take my word for, as the famous Argentine revolutionary, Che Guevara, once said: “Perhaps one day, tired of circling the world, I’ll return to Argentina and settle in the Andean lakes, if not indefinitely then at least for a pause while I shift from one understanding of the world to another.”

Talk to you in two weeks,

Kaye

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To read part one of Kaye’s Postcard from Argentina series, please click here

To read part two of Kaye’s Postcard from Argentina series, please click here

Words and pictures: Kaye Holland

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