Mountains, lakes and beautiful views, Bariloche’s Circuito Chico

If Bariloche, the town, is disappointing, the surrounding countryside certainly isn’t. We had a car and planned to head to San Martin de los Andes along the Ruta de los Siete Lagos, but first we spent a half day driving the ridiculously picturesque Circuito Chico. The route travels along the crystal-clear lake shore, through wooded countryside, and passes interesting hamlets like Llao Llao and Colonia Suiza. The latter, founded in the 19th century by Swiss settlers, still retains a distinct Alpine identity.

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

There are places along the route where you can hike through the woods to hidden lake shores, picnic on lake beaches, get spectacular views over the mountains and lakes, and even take a tasting tour at the Patagonia Brewery looking out over Lago Moreno. The scenery is wonderfully dramatic, especially when the Yellow Broom bushes are in full bloom under bright blue Andean skies. We left the Peninsula San Pedro and drove anti-clockwise around the circuit, soon arriving at the famous Llao Llao hotel.

The Llao Llao sits in dramatic surroundings, and although its Alpine design fits the local scenery, its sheer size makes it a bit of an eyesore these days. We decided not to stop and headed onwards into a heavily wooded area that runs along Lago Moreno. We saw a sign for the Lago Escondido and decided to do the short hike through the woods to the lake. There’s a lakeside beach nearby that offers views over a branch of the Lago  Nahuel Huapi but, best of all, there was no one else around to interrupt the peace.

A little further along the circuit we passed the Cementerio del Montañés, a cemetery where climbers from around the world are buried. Soon afterwards we came to a sign for the Colonia Suiza, it looked a bit handmade and we weren’t exactly sure if this was the right road, but we took it anyway. Soon we were bouncing down gravel tracks past farms that really could have come straight from Switzerland, all the while throwing up plumes of chocking dust behind the car.

The Colonia Suiza was a bit of a disappointment. A small community seemingly entirely dependent on tourism, but with no tourists the day we arrived. The whole place had the air of an abandoned frontier town. We walked to the lake shore, where a large group of unfriendly ‘dogs on strings’ people were making the place look untidy. There wasn’t anything to keep us so we hit the dirt road again along the shores of Lago Perito Moreno. The colour of the water was extraordinary.

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Llao Llao hotel, Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Llao Llao hotel, Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Because of the detour to Colonia Suiza, we’d missed the section of the Circuito Chico that has the most famous view in Bariloche, one that takes in the vista over the Llao Llao hotel, over the lakes and across the distant mountains. It’s truly spectacular and was well worth having to do the circuit again going clockwise this time. This is also the stretch of the circuit where the Patagonia brewery is to be found. Once you’ve taken in the magnificent views you can have a locally brewed beer to celebrate.

Patagonia beer, Bariloche, Argentina

Patagonia beer, Bariloche, Argentina

On the shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi, Bariloche

What to do in Bariloche when you have a broken toe? This is the outdoor capital of Argentina, where hiking, cycling and climbing activities abound. I’d planned to walk some of the nearby mountains, but an injury sustained a few weeks earlier in Buenos Aires meant I couldn’t even contemplate putting my blackened foot into a walking boot. Luckily, we’d booked into the Fabula Lake House. Located right on the lake shore on a tranquil peninsular outside of Bariloche, it’s an extraordinary place to stay, and the perfect place to kick back and do nothing.

The day we arrived, Walter, the Italian owner who runs Fabula with his Argentine wife, Miriam, had just returned from a fishing trip on the lake. Two unfortunate but delicious rainbow trout were quickly turned into an al fresco lunch accompanied by wine from Mendoza. After our relaxing and indulgent time in the Valle de Uco, we were definitely in the mood for more of the same. We gave up on our plans to explore Bariloche and, instead, spent the afternoon in the garden taking in the views over the lake.

Bariloche, Argentina

Bariloche, Argentina

Lago Nahuel Huapi, Bariloche, Argentina

Lago Nahuel Huapi, Bariloche, Argentina

Lago Nahuel Huapi, Bariloche, Argentina

Lago Nahuel Huapi, Bariloche, Argentina

Rio Limay, Bariloche, Argentina

Rio Limay, Bariloche, Argentina

Fabula Lake House, Bariloche, Argentina

Fabula Lake House, Bariloche, Argentina

Fabula Lake House, Bariloche, Argentina

Fabula Lake House, Bariloche, Argentina

This turned out to be a good decision because the next day when we did make it into Bariloche, it would be fair to say it was a disappointment. Urban planning seems to be totally missing from the town. Its hideous collection of ugly buildings, built with little regard for the exquisite natural beauty of the surrounding area, is an assault on the senses. The downtown area is focused entirely on tourism, chocolate emporiums and outdoor shops predominate. Urban sprawl stretches unchecked in every direction to accommodate the million people who visit each year.

Known as the ‘Switzerland of the Andes’, Bariloche was settled by German immigrants  coming from Chile in the 1920s, its original architecture could have been transported from the Alps. Alas, no more. As tourism has grown, the town’s population has boomed without any real attempts to manage the growth. It’s a shame, because as you walk around you constantly get views over the magnificent Lago Nahuel Huapi and to the Andes in the distance. The contrast between town and country is not flattering.

The Alpine architecture of previous decades may explain why Bariloche was appealing to the many Nazis and Facist sympathisers who fled here after the Second World War. SS Commander Erich Priebke, guilty of war crimes in Italy, was captured here in 1994. Reinhard Kopps, another SS officer, lived here openly and died only in 2001. They were just two of many. Despite its glorious location, this distressing history lends Bariloche something of a macabre air.

We had some lunch before driving back out of town to take the cable car to the summit of Cerro Otto, where a viewing platform provides spectacular panoramas over the lake to the mountains. It’s not cheap to ride the cable car, and there weren’t many people on it the day we were there, but the views just about compensate for the cost. Inside the mountain-top complex is a restaurant and an art gallery. The latter contains the truly bizarre sight of a three metre high replica of Michelangelo’s David.

Cerro Otto, Bariloche, Argentina

Cerro Otto, Bariloche, Argentina

Cerro Otto, Bariloche, Argentina

Cerro Otto, Bariloche, Argentina

Cerro Otto, Bariloche, Argentina

Cerro Otto, Bariloche, Argentina

Cerro Otto, Bariloche, Argentina

Cerro Otto, Bariloche, Argentina

Michaelangelo's David, Cerro Otto, Bariloche, Argentina

Michaelangelo’s David, Cerro Otto, Bariloche, Argentina

Afterwards, we drove back to the Lake House and watched the sun set and the stars come out in their billions. When it got too cold to stay outdoors, we were treated to the comfort of a log fire, on which our home barbecued dinner would be cooked. It was a traditional Argentinian meal, vast hunks of beef accompanied by chorizo and blood sausage, the famed morcilla, all washed down with a good Malbec. We went to sleep that night to the wonderful sound of nothing more than the breeze in the tree tops.