Monday, January 31, 2011

San Martín de Los Andes, Argentina, Part 1

The view of Lago Lácar (Lacar Lake) from our excursion boat in San Martin de los Andes

The next day, we decided to explore everyone's favorite town of San Martín de los Andes, so we walked down to the bus terminal to ask about times and fares. It turned out that San Martín was only about 45 minutes away and cost 7 pesos (about US$1.50) on local buses that ran all day and most of the evening. We took the next bus and arrived in just under an hour in the lovely Alpine-themed, albeit touristy, town. The bus terminal is just steps away from the lake dock and boat basin so we started our tour there. San Martín is an easy place to explore: compact, safe, clean, modern and well-maintained. The wind off the lake was blowing at gale-force speed that day though, so we were forced to cut our lakefront visit short and head to the center of town.

Sim at a town park in San Martin

San Martín is a popular destination for Argentines and Chileans (it is only 45 km or about 27 miles from the Chilean border at the foot of the Andes). In the winter, it attracts skiers and snowboarders to the famous ski resort of Chapelco and in the summer, hikers, golfers and boaters flock to the area for the breathtaking mountain scenery, crystal blue lakes, secluded beaches and mild weather. The town is charming and filled with Swiss and German style tea and coffee houses, chocolate shops and bakeries. We wandered through the orderly streets, stopping to admire the hundreds of scented rose bushes and flower gardens. The central plaza and  various parks are also all well-kept: the fountains, paths, gazebos, monuments and play areas were all spotless in the true Swiss-German tradition (the first time I have ever seen the buildings and statues of a South American town not covered in graffiti).  

Luis taking a break from hiking at a remote waterfall at Quila Quina on Lago Lácar

Everyone told us not to miss taking a boat excursion, so we signed up for the full-day boat trip that travels around the lakes of the Lanin National Park, Lago Lacar and Lago Nonthue on Sundays, stopping at various spots to hike and to visit waterfalls, beaches, scenic overlooks and to have lunch. We arrived early in the morning to stop at a cafe for Swiss hot chocolate (gotta have our sugar-fueled strength!) and then boarded the boat. The weather was perfect for a boat trip: sunny and much less windy than it had been on our first day. The boat traveled around the two lakes, stopping first at Quila Quina, a small, peaceful lakeside community with a beautiful beach, waterfalls and hiking trails. Many people were already in the water, swimming, jet-skiing, canoeing and kayaking, so we decided to hike up to the small waterfall. The trail wasn't very steep and it was an easy hike up. We were the only ones not at the beach, so we had the trail all to ourselves which provided much-needed solitude in our long travels.  

   Kayakers on Lago Lacar near the beach at Quila Quina

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Junín de Los Andes, Argentina, Part 1

Our rose-filled campground, Junin de los Andes, Argentina
After leaving the lovely, but torturously hot town of Sierra de la Ventana, we decided it was time to move to a fresher clime. We’d wanted to visit the mountain town of San Martin de los Andes for some time; our friends raved about its Alpine (or more accurately, Andean) beauty and the wide range of outdoor activities available. It seemed to be the perfect place to cool down, but after talking to other travelers and locals, the neighboring town of Junín de los Andes sounded like a much better choice: cheaper, less touristy, more laid-back and situated only 45 minutes away from San Martin by local bus. We arrived in Junín in the early afternoon and walked directly to the tourist office. The staff gave us lots of great information, including local hiking trails, Wi-Fi locations, good places to eat, and a list of budget hostels and after leaving our backpacks and camping gear with them, we headed out to find a place to stay. Most of the hostels were relatively expensive and were unappealing (dark rooms or smelling strongly of cleaning fluids or mildew), so we decided to check out the campsites.

Fly fishing in the many icy, trout-filled rivers of Junin 

We found a wonderful, tranquil campground called Alberque Mallin Beata Laura Vicuna, a peaceful place filled with rose bushes and tall poplars waving in the breeze and bordered on both sides by trout-filled rivers. The manager, Dulio, a friendly, helpful man, showed us around the grounds and we decided that sleeping under the stars with the sound of the wind in the trees and the rushing mountain rivers and breathing rose-scented air beat the hostels hands down (and at US$6 a night per person, the campsite was the deal of the century). We settled in with our tent in a cozy grove of trees on soft grass and set out to explore the town. Junín de los Andes is famous for its trout fly-fishing, and fishing supply stores, fly-tying workshops and restaurants serving fresh trout dinners are on every corner. In season, the fast-flowing icy rivers are filled with fly-fisherman (and for that matter, fisherwomen and fisherchildren) in waders casting for the many trout who brave the frigid waters. Being Argentine, they will inevitably also have a cigarette hanging from their lips and their yerba mate thermos close at hand on the nearby river bank. The area also attracts many foreign tourists including Americans, Canadians, Chileans, Germans, Dutch and Australians among others who flock to the area not only for the excellent fishing, but to hike up the volcanoes, kayak, sail, river raft and sample local game at the many restaurants (most menus include deer, trout, salmon, rabbit and wild boar).

In front of the decorated monkey puzzle tree, Christmas Eve

We arrived on December 22nd, just in time for Christmas and the town was festively decorated for the season. In the main square stood a charming Monkey Puzzle tree decorated with colored lights, ornaments, bows and foil-wrapped gift boxes. At that time of year, it is summer in the Southern Hemisphere, so even though we were in the Andes, the weather was pleasantly warm and sunny. Behind white picket fences were cottage gardens overflowing with bright red and yellow poppies, daisies, pastel-colored scented roses, lupines in shades of blue, violet and pink, poplar and pine trees. We had a dinner of trout at a local popular restaurant, Ruca Hueney, but found the food ordinary and the service disappointing. Luckily, the next night we found a smaller, but much better place called Sigmund’s on the outskirts of the town. Our friendly waitress, Cynthia, brought us a delicious wood-fired pizza topped on one half with smoked deer jerky and on the other with smoked trout (and of course, washed down with several cold amber Austral artisanal beers).

Delicious smoked trout and deer pizza at Sigmund's Restaurant 

Local people kept advising us to visit Via Christi, a kind of sculpture park/hiking trail that commemorates the journey of Christ to the cross. Not being the most spiritual person on earth, I balked at the idea, imaging a miniature version of a religious theme park, but Luis wanted to visit it so I relented and was pleasantly surprised. The trail is situated in lovely pine woods high above the town and filled with a mix of modern and original sculptures, Aboriginal art and Gaudi-style cut tile structures. The larger-than-life pieces of art depict world peace, religious, cultural tolerance and non-violence.

A sculputure celebrating the union of the world's religions, Via Christi