After leaving Chile’s Lake District, we carried on south, making a brief stay in the city of Valdivia. Both the tour books and the locals had spoken highly of this place, but to be honest we didn’t really find it to be all that entertaining. Probably the most interesting aspect of the entire area was the ever-growing German influence we were beginning to notice. Back in 1845, the Chilean government passed the Law of Selective Immigration whose primary goal was to “bring people of a medium social/high cultural level to colonize the southern regions of Chile”. Basically they wanted to get some people in there and make a sturdy claim on the land before the Argentinians got any wise ideas about maybe just sauntering a little west from their own territory and planting the flag. It just so happened that around this time the Germans were experiencing a little bout of political turmoil in the form of the Revolutions of 1848. Chile was looking for people with then-modern technology and know-how to develop agriculture and industry, the Germans were looking to get the hell out of Germany, and thus a beautiful marriage was made. The result is that 150 years later the place the full of German place names, street names, architecture, food, and beer. Even the stray dogs are german shepherds!
This Teutonic trend would come to dominate our perception of the area and would reach its nadir in our next stop, the beautiful Argentinian town of (San Carlos de) Bariloche. Once again we dove west across the thin Andes range, leaving behind the friendly confines of Chile to make what would be our second of three separate incursions into Argentina. Crossing the Andes is always an exciting and beautiful experience, but this one would provide its own unique twist. Back in June of this year, the Puyehue volcano roared back to life after some fifty years of relative dormancy, spewing a column of ash nearly 40,000 feet into the air. It buried towns on the Argentinian side of the border and closed airports as far away as Melbourne, Australia. We had known this fact before we even left home, and knew it had the potential to spoil what would ordinarily be one of the most spectacularly beautiful parts of our entire trip, but hey, how often do you really get to see the the devastating effects of a volcano up close? As soon as we approached the border crossing located high in the mountains we began to notice a thin gray dust covering every surface. It grew thicker and thicker as we went west until eventually it stood in huge piles where it had been plowed off the road. There was a sickening beauty to it that is hard to explain. We stared out the window of the bus with a slack-jawed countenance, on one hand marveling at the transformative power of the pumice that had rained down for days, on the other hand realizing that the vast forest through which we traveled would reap dire consequences from being buried alive.
Eventually the ash began to taper off though, and as we rounded the shores of Nahuel Huapi lake a couple of hours later we finally entered Bariloche. The center of the city was built to resemble an alpine town, and were it not for the Spanish-speaking locals you’d be hard-pressed to believe you weren’t smack in the middle of Switzerland or Bavaria. Once again the German influence was apparent. Chocolate shops on every corner, St. Bernards in the square complete with the little barrels under their necks, and cuckoo clocks in the shops. It’s no secret that the post-World War II Perón regime in Argentina was more than a little friendly to some Germans who once again needed a reason to get the hell out of Germany, and only a few months ago a book came out making the unlikely claim that Hitler and Eva escaped after the war and lived out their final days in Bariloche. Nazi sympathies aside, both the town and its surrounds are truly a sight to behold. Soaring peaks ring the town, and their sides reach right down to the shores of a host of pristine alpine lakes. In the winter it’s a world-class ski destination attracting skiers and snowboarders from around the globe, and in the summer visitors flock from all over to tackle its endless miles of hiking trails, fish, go horseback riding, and kayak. Kel and I rode a couple of different chairlifts up to some scenic spots to soak up the views. Our favorite was from the top of Cerro Campanario which apparently was once named by none other than National Geographic as one of the top ten views in the world. We rode the lift up, then hiked a couple of hours down a dirt road back into town. On another afternoon I tried my hand at kayaking for the very first time. Though the wind that afternoon proved to be a bit difficult and tiring to maneuver in, all in all I think did pretty well and might even be interested in investigating the sport a bit further one day. Our final excursion in the area was an afternoon boat ride across the blue waters of Nahuel Huapi lake to visit a couple of islands inside a national park. One of the islands had giant sequoia trees on it which I’m quite sure were the biggest and tallest trees I’ve ever seen in my life.
Bariloche proved to be another great little side trip into Argentina. One day the wind blew strongly and filled the air with ash from across the lake, but aside from a little grit in the teeth and a bit of dust in the eyes and throat we emerged largely unscathed. After getting our fill of all the alpine scenery and all the delicious chocolates and Argentinian beef we could handle it was finally time to pack up and head back over the border into Chile one more time. Stay tuned for the next exciting episode, in which Keith encounters another Hoosier, and Kelly encounters a smile-inducing rainbow trout.