Disappointed about Bariloche, we decided to drive north, along the route of the Seven Lakes – an area we had not visited before. First we skirted around Lago Nahuel Huapi, crossed some more dry Patagonian pampas, and reached Villa la Angostura – a bustling tourist town that looked more like what we remembered Bariloche to be way back when… Yet, we did not stop to look around: we would be coming back within a week to get our truck serviced by a well recommended mechanic in Bariloche, who just happened to start his vacation when we arrived at his place. “Come back next week Wednesday, and I can help you then” he told us, and so we will.
Ruta de Siete Lagos, (which also happens to overlap the well known #40 – that Argentinian north to south artery we traveled on before) meandered through thick forested mountains – part of the enormous Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi. Along the roadside, one could see an abundance of lupine plants, now bursting with seed pods. Behind the lupines, the taller greens of scotch broom (gorse) closed the gap between the road and the forest: what a colorful sight that must have been in the springtime, all that purple and yellow along the road!
Not far outside of Villa la Angostura, the road splits off to one that leads west to the Chilean border, and Ruta #40 going north. On all sides, clear blue lakes drew our eyes down the steep wooded mountain sides. Despite the heavy vacation traffic, we enjoyed the drive north in perfect weather. When, by mid afternoon, we found a sign advertising a free National Park campground, we drove down to check it out – and decided to stay. We were not the only ones there. Many campers were tucked away in the bushes, while we picked a spot with a full view over the shallow river. From here, we could see fish jumping after a hovering insect, and a kingfisher on a tree branch, eyeing that fish small enough to spear. We took a hike following a narrow path along the river, until a few fallen trees blocked our way. Heavy winds and forest fires take a heavy toll on the trees here. There will be enough firewood for all the campers, and then some!
The nice thing about Argentinian campers is that they are peacefully quiet: they make a campfire, maybe try to catch a fish, prepare their barbeque, cook, eat, and drink. We heard no loud voices or music, except for a few campfire songs …not bothersome at all. However: a few environmental lessons would not be out of place, like, if nature calls you to go in nature, do it at least a good distance away from a natural water source, and please bury your stuff, and/or wrap up your dirty toilet paper and dispose of it properly, because it looks gross to come across those dumping grounds during an otherwise enjoyable walk. Someone else’s toilet paper is the one thing I refuse to pick up. And please don’t rinse your porta-potty holding tank in the river, close to where your neighbor is filling his water kettle or doing the dishes a minute later. We would not even take soap to these essentially pristine waters.
Anyway, we continued the next morning and soon entered San Martin de los Andes, another popular mountain town with characteristic wooden buildings and multilayered roofs, and an abundance of flowers. Especially roses! Roses do so well in this part of Argentina; they seem to grow effortlessly without any signs of diseases, and bloom abundantly. It is the most popular plant here – both in the gardens and along the sidewalks. Maybe roses are so healthy because they also grow wild here. This time of the year the wild rosebushes were starting to color their leaves yellow, their fruit red. I wish the rosehips would be easier for us to consume – not having to go through the process of removing all the seed, to be left with just a thin skin that cooks into a delicious syrup or jelly. So, most of that fruit will be left for the sheep and other animals to devour.
Even with all the people crowding the streets, and even though the town discouraged camping vehicles to hang around, we stayed for a couple of days. The terraces were inviting, as were the shady parks, so we had lunch at one place, drinks at another. We found a spot to sleep at the edge of town between an Argentinian family in an old patched-up bus, and a Brazilian couple in a sleek Sprinter campervan. Both being Sprinter owners, we connected with the Brazilians. It was the weekend of Carnaval: they, hailing from Rio de Janeiro, missed the annual celebration, just like Thijs does, who is from the south of the Netherlands, where Carnaval is also celebrated. They heard that there would be a carnaval kick-off in San Martin, starting at 5PM at Plaza San Martin, so we all went there. 5PM, no action yet, but a gathering of beer trucks encircled a stage…after about an hour, a young woman started singing ballads…nice voice, but it did not feel like carnaval. People, drinks in hand, stood around and talked, sat and observed…kids climbed the statue of San Martin…after another hour we went back to our camper.
Before turning around at what we considered the end of our route along the seven lakes, we had to satisfy our curiosity about Junin de los Andes, a small town north of San Martin which, in comparison to the latter, would be more laid back and simple; not as expensive as San Martin, and automatically a town that attracts a more alternative crowd…but we made the mistake of going there on a Sunday. It definitely was laid back: everything was closed and hardly a soul was out on the streets. We hung around for a couple of hours, trying to decide what to do, and in the end we just gave up and drove away. We backtracked on the road to San Martin, and continued on until we reached the big open lakeside campground that we’d spotted before on the way up.
Again, this was a free National Park campsite without any amenities. Everyone just drives in and find themselves a satisfactory spot, for one night or a whole vacation. I was amazed at how easy the system worked, how clean the place looked without a garbage disposal system, and how peacefully everyone co-inhabited the space. So, even though we were camping here with a hundred-something other campers, I found it a very positive experience that we had not encountered in many other places so far. Before we left the next day we walked the trail along the lake’s edge across from the campsite, to discover wild cows that fled for us like deer spotting humans, and horses crossing the water to get to greener pastures. We passed calafate bushes rich with berries, and multitudes of long dead fallen trees. We walked along pebbled beaches and reed filled lakeshores, through grassy fields in the middle of the woods, and admired the wide vistas across the clear waters. And then it was time to continue our drive back towards Bariloche.
We made one last stop in Villa la Angostura, the town that looked interesting and popular, enough to make us halt. We enjoyed a tasty lunch at Tinto, the bistro that is said to be owned by the brother of our (Argentinian born) Dutch Queen Maxima. I had a grave lax dish, and Thijs had a well cooked trout with an orange sauce. It was pricey but delicious. With the robbery reputation of Bariloche (“don’t leave your camper unattended at the parking lot, you will get it broken into…”) we decided to do our necessary grocery shopping in Villa la Angostura before our last leg back, heading for the mechanic, for a service job.
However, when we arrived at the mechanic, he was not available yet; too tired from his vacation. We should come back tomorrow… The next day, at the moment we were at his door, we received a message that he was held up by other commitments, we should come back next day. Tired of the busy, expensive, and this time noisy nearby campgrounds, this time we drove out of town to a beachfront to spend another night. It was a beautiful location that coincided with clear skies and quiet winds: perfect weather, perfect place! Here we made up our minds, if we should go back to the mechanic one more time, or cross the border to Chile and find someone there: the trip back to the mechanic would take an hour one way, and even if we would be helped that day, the service would need longer than one day…would he continue his work on the weekend? When Thijs asked through WhatsApp message, he didn’t receive an answer. So we decided to go to Chile instead. But that is another story.