It was about 9 hours into our hike up to Laguna Negra that we finally decided that we had made a mistake.
It might have been avoided if we had considered that the map we had bought of the trails and refugios in Nahual Huapi National Park was coming from a mountaineering club, or perhaps if we had looked up some pictures of the trail online... but when we saw the trail marked 'simple' that led to a high altitude lake and its nearby free camping we just went for it.
And that is how we found ourselves scrambling up the rocky walls of a rainy valley in the falling light with full packs, cursing the map as we climbed hand over hand in search of shelter. We had assumed that 'simple' meant 'easy' and had not realized that our map was simply informing us that we would not need climbing equipment. Thanks, map...
SPOILER ALERT: we made it, it just took 10 hours
Our week-long adventure on the trails and mountains of Nahual Huapi National Park (outside Bariloche, Argentina) begins back in Santiago, Chile where a meager bus schedule forced us into several days of planning and reconsideration in town.
Moving south from Santiago presents options for Northern Patagonian parks on both sides of the border, but wildfires on the Chilean side meant that many parks were closed and even the ones that remained open were smoky and on high alert for potential trouble. With this in mind we opted for a bus route that travelled overnight and over the border to the year-round vacation and hiking hub of Bariloche, Argentina.
This is the cleanest that we would be for at least a week... it all goes downhill from the bus into town!
As much fun as the many restaurants and chocolate shops in town promised to be however, our big reason for going there was the Nahual Huapi National Park (named for the massive lake that borders town) which promised trekking, remote refugios (hikers' hostels in the backcountry) and views of mountains, glaciers, waterfalls and wildlife. The park itself stretches all the way from the border of town deep to the Andes mountains that form the Chilean border and contains a meandering network of trails that range in distance and difficulty levels from 'Simple' to 'Expert'.
Upon arriving in Bariloche we visited the National Park office in the center of the tourist district for some free maps and trail advice. Then we walked a short distance (about a block up the street) to the Club Andino de Bariloche where we purchased a more thorough trekking map of the area and got some slightly better advice.
There, we determined that we would try to do two different routes leaving from different parts of town- the "5 hour" trek from Colonia Suiza to the Refugio Italia (next to the mountain lake Laguna Negra) and the "4 hour" trek from Pampa Linda to Refugio Otto Meilling (next to a glacier!)
Handily enough, there was also a small supermarket just one more block up where we stocked up on South American camping essentials: dehydrated milk, instant coffee, salami and hot sauce. This is about where things stopped being easy.
All of our guide books had told us how simple and cheap it was to use the Bariloche bus system- just buy a card at a kiosko (mini market) load it up with $10-15 and head to the bus station! Unfortunately for us, we had arrived on a Friday in the summer and the entire city was somehow sold out of bus cards, meaning that public transportation was closed to us.
We hired a taxi driver who we thought had indicated that he would take us all the way to Colonia Suiza (18K away) for $200 pesos (about $12 USD) which seemed too good to be true, and it was.... He ended up dropping us off when the meter reached $200 pesos, leaving us about 10K outside of the park entrance and we were forced to hitchhike the rest of the way... a classic taxi experience.
It took us two separate rides but we eventually caught one that got us all the way into the park
Patrick and Rosie's Handy Guide to Hitchhiking In and Around
Nahual Huapi National Park
Take off your sunglasses and smile, it makes you look less like an escaped criminal.
The ride will likely feel kind of awkward if you don't speak Spanish, but hey... free ride!
Try to think of something relatable about where you are from, so when you are inevitably asked this question, you can at least laugh about something together. We say "Tennessee! Mucho Jack Daniels!" which usually gets a laugh. Not sure what to say if you are from Delaware, sorry.
We never put our bags in the trunk- riding with it in your lap will make it harder for someone to drive off with it.
If anything about the ride sketches you out, just leave. We have definitely turned down rides from drivers who were suspicious looking, weren't clear on where we/they were going or had cars that looked like they were about to break down.
Laguna Negra from Colonia Suiza- 14K, 500m gain-
Estimated time up: 5 hours, actual time up: 10 hours
Colonia Suiza is a fun little day-tripping town for visitors to Bariloche and doubles as the trailhead for a number of trekking routes. It is worth noting that there is no grocery store, camping shop or ATM.
There is dirt-cheap camping however, if you stay at the retired firefighter's "campground" (i.e. backyard)- he might not know how to run a camping outfit, and he might broadcast Argentinian public radio on loudspeakers throughout the campground (Why? No idea. It was only $4 USDpp so we weren't too concerned) but we were staying at the same place as all the street performers, so we at least had entertainment as they practiced their juggling routines by the cooking area.
Our first day in the actual national park was one of the most trying we've had so far. The 5-hour/14K trail started off low and forested, and essentially followed a river up into the mountains. While the first half was softly rolling and fairly muddy, somewhere around the 9K mark it took a turn and devolved into a fiasco of river crossings, hiking up muddy slopes and clinging to rocky drop offs... This is where we contemplated our choice of map and had a few choice words for the mountain club that sold it to us...
It was absolutely beautiful the entire way, from the rocky tree-less groves that it through passed in the lower elevations to the windy mountainside that led to the summit (we even saw some rainbows on the way up), but it was a challenge with heavy packs and when we finally found the lip of the high valley that hid the refugio and the lake from sight we were about done in.
The final 2K was pretty intense. Beautiful, but intense.
Perched high in the mountains, the lake was deep and clear and reflected the the craggy peaks that surrounded it when the wind occasionally slowed down. Opposite the lake, across a small stone lip was the valley that we had hiked up- a huge empty space with sheer walls that made the lake feel as through it were perched on an edge and ready to tumble right out. Right at the spot of tension between the two sat the Refugio Italia, an oddly asymmetrical red building that provided meals and bunks for those without camping equipment and free spots and cooking space for those who had brought their own.
Rosie on one of our "day hikes" around Laguna Negra
The refugio is an interesting contradiction- while existing in the backcountry, it feels very much like a frontcountry experience, with groups of people all hanging around, eating and talking, sharing wine (there were actual wine lists) and reading in the rustic wooden common areas. There are even flush toilets (you should bring your own TP, though) and gas stoves to cook on.
We like camping on our own, so while we enjoyed being out of the cities and camping with fantastic scenery, the refugio can't really be called a wilderness experience. Many trekkers opt to carry very little with them between the refugios, meaning that they can move much faster and more easily, but the trade-off is that they then have to rely on the refugios for everything else (which is not cheap). We camped for free and ate the food that we had brought and had a great time... but it is likely that the 5 hour estimated hiking time on the map is for those traveling much more lightly than we were!
In the end we spent 2 nights at Laguna Negra before hiking back down. It took much less time going down (no surprise there!) and when we got within an hour of town we ended up camping for a third night in one of the unofficial campsites off the trail. Spending a night away from the refugio was actually wonderfully peaceful as we only had the nearby stream to listen to, and aside from the cows wandering through our campsite in the morning, was much more like camping in the backcountry.
Downtime at our final campsite outside Pampa Linda
Refugio Otto Meilling from Pampa Linda- 14K, 1050m gain,
Estimated time: 4 hours, actual time: 5 hours
We got a little smarter for our second trek in Nahual Huapi National Park! We got into town the night before and scheduled and paid for a morning shuttle to Pampa Linda, a small town outside Bariloche where once again, several trails begin. The shuttle wasn't cheap ($24 USD per person, one way) so we didn't schedule a return bus, hoping to find a better deal later.
The bus ride left about 8am the next morning and after leaving the main road about 30 minutes into the 2 hour ride became so dusty that we had to wear our scarves over our faces INSIDE the van. We were surprised when the van stopped at the park entrance and we each had to pay $300 pesos each (about $20USD) to enter the park- especially since we hadn't had to pay when we visited Laguna Negra. This is why you should always carry extra cash in South America! Surprise entrance fees, bus station taxes and harbor tariffs abound and can leave you in a bad place if you are not prepared.
Coughing and dusty, we arrived in Pampa Linda and realized that Colonia Suiza's 3 blocks of restaurants and souvenir shops were the Big City compared to where we had ended up.
1 hostel, 2 campgrounds (one rustic, one "with services" and twice the price) and a mostly-closed restaurant were apparently all the business that that trailhead could support. There was no internet anywhere in town and the semi-legit horseback riding business turned its herd loose in town every afternoon to graze. It was a weird, weird place and made us happy we had brought everything we would need for the next 4 nights
Google Translate and the resident Park Ranger helped us register for hiking, and the next morning we set off. The hike went straight up (obviously) but we had planned ahead this time and were carrying a stripped down version of our gear with us- knowing what kind of weather we were likely to encounter and that we would not need any of our electronics, we checked one backpack full of non-camping-essential gear into the luggage storage of the restaurant (about the price of two cokes) and were able to move much faster and lighter.
While we were down in Pampa Linda we kept hearing what we thought was thunder, even with clear skies and a clear forecast. Upon climbing closer within view of the mountain it became obvious that what we had been hearing was the glacier that ringed its peak, shifting ever so slighly every now and again, and its massive waterfalls of meltwater. As we got higher and higher the ice came into better and better relief, with its bright blue crevasses highlighted against its blinding white surface.
The view from the refugio: Glacier Castano Overa and the Chilean/Argentinian border
Folks are more than a little eager to drop their packs upon making it to the refugio, it seems...
The Otto Meilling Refugio only took about 5 hours to reach and was situated on the edge of the glacier. Despite its crusty exterior, the inside was reminiscent of a German beer bar, with polished wood fixtures and glasses hanging from the ceiling. We tried to buy a glass of wine to celebrate our hike but they would only sell us a bottle.
They also insisted on making us take glasses, because apparently drinking wine out of plastic coffee cups is uncivilized.
We camped outside the refugio and the view was unbelievable. There were more mountain peaks visible than could be easily counted and the sun lit up the glacier like fire every morning. In the evening the wind whipped up and tore around our tent, making us glad for the small rock walls a previous camper had constructed to protect themselves. We made risotto in the evening and watched the full moon come out and made pour-over coffee in the morning and watched as Andean condors circled the misty valley below us.
Ever Further, y'all!
Camping next to the ice, and finally getting to test some of the cold-weather gear we'd been carrying!
After we hiked back down into Pampa Linda it took us two days to hitchhike back to Bariloche- while numerous cars came and went all day on day trips, many were full or uninterested in picking up a couple filthy backpackers. We had to camp an extra night, but it was still 1/10 of the price of the shuttle back out.
Enjoying the view and trying to avoid paying for the overpriced shuttle
When we eventually did thumb a ride back out of Pampa Linda it was with a young Chilean couple who played U.S. Top 40 hits the whole time. The back seat was so cramped that with our backpacks on our laps our legs quickly went to sleep and stayed that way for the whole trip... but hey, free ride! We couldn't converse much during the 2-hour drive due to the language barrier, but when we finally made it back onto the paved road and turned toward town, the whole car erupted into cheering.
In the end, Parque Nacional Nahual Huapi was both exhilarating and exhausting. The trails were decidedly merciless but the views and the camping were ample reward for the struggle of making it out of town and then up each mountain. We enjoyed the opportunity to camp for free and to hike without needing a guide service, making Nahual Huapi even more unique in the lexicon of popular South American parks. Whether you pack lightly and stay in the refugios or lug your own tent and kit into the park, the trail is guaranteed to always take you somewhere interesting- just be sure to follow your map...
Nahual Huapi National Park, By the Numbers
Andean Condors Circling the Valley: 3
Average Distance from a Trailhead to the nearest Refugio/Camping Spot: 14K
Average Number of Foil Sleeping Pads Strapped to the Average Backpack: 1.5
The Sun Went Down At: 9pm (in February)
Cost of a Hostel Double in Bariloche: $60USD
Cost of Camping at the Refugio: Straight-Up Free
Should I Just Wear My Rain Jacket All the Time: Yes
How Many Super-Cheap Boxes of Gourmet Chocolate Should I Pack Into My Campsite: 1 per night, obviously