Ah, Bariloche. Even in the ’60s, when much of Latin America was terra incognita for North Americans — a realm of dodgy dictators and exotic, uncharted landscapes — Argentina’s premier mountain resort was a cosmopolitan hub. My mother has fond memories of that era, and how civilized it all was, with cocktails in the chalet and suave waiters who spoke fluent English.
Decades on, Bariloche is still very civilized — and eminently user-friendly. From the steady stream of cheap flights to the array of low-impact, high-thrill day tours, from mountain trails as flat as boardwalks to the cafés on every corner, Bariloche invites the visitor to relax and simply enjoy being on vacation.
Porteños (people from the capital of Buenos Aires) descend on Bariloche in the South American winter, bound for the fabled ski resorts. Here in the Southern Andes, the peaks are lower and less demanding and the altitude considerably gentler than further north, all of which contributes to Bariloche’s wintertime appeal. But Patagonians complain that winters aren’t as cold in recent years — and in Bariloche, winters were never really cold enough to be reliably snowy.
So as glaciers melt and snow slides off the mountaintops in springtime waterfalls, October has become the new July, ushering in a summer season of dry, fresh sunny days. What was once the off-season has become an increasingly popular time of year to explore this rugged (but not too rugged) Andean wonderland.
Among the most enthusiastic explorers are young Israelis, post-army backpackers who descend on the city in such packs that in some hostels — and along certain hiking trails — you are as likely to hear Hebrew as Spanish or English. They are drawn not only by the city’s convenience and beauty, but also by the lure of the familiar in this improbably southern region: Bariloche has the largest Jewish population in Patagonia, with an active community center and a proud frontier tradition.
The Bariloche Chabad Center — one of the world’s southernmost Chabads — hosts lively Shabbat dinners for year-round crowds of mostly 20-somethings. Most of these Israelis are seeking adventure in the mountains, but earlier waves of Jewish settlers came to Bariloche escaping the wars of Europe and the stress of urban Argentina. (A few Nazis also sought refuge here in the postwar years, according to local lore.)
A thousand miles southwest of the capital, Bariloche owes its fortunes to an unbeatable location on the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi (NAH-wal WAH-pee), where the lower Andes meet the Patagonian lake district. Much of the area lies comfortably below the tree line, so Bariloche is verdant all year round, ringed by evergreen forests that shimmer in the still lake waters.
Wandering through the town — which is easy to do on foot — you might well think you’ve stumbled into a corner of the Alps: much of the Swiss-style chalet architecture is reminiscent of the Swiss and German roots of Bariloche settlers.
As is the chocolate. Unlike Perugia or Brussels, Bariloche is not known as a chocolate lover’s destination, but it really should be. The central streets are lined with artisanal chocolatiers like Rapanui and Mamuschka, glittery emporia of delicacies filled with lemon meringue, dulce de leche and marzipan. If all that sugar weren’t enough, Bariloche is also home to a central European coffeehouse culture, where tempting trays of strudel and torte invite passers-by for an afternoon nosh (or merienda, in the local lingo).
Most tourists stay in one of the full-service high-rise hotels built in the postwar era; they are a perfectly reasonable — and often discounted — option. But my friend Rachel, who lived in Chile for years and visits frequently, tipped me off to a more romantic alternative: Puerto Blest, a very exclusive, intimate lodge perched on the lake shore, with stunning views from every window.
You get there the way you get most places here: by boat, cruising through milky green lagoons, by gushing waterfalls and snow-capped peaks. Most boatrides here are themselves tourist attractions, and while every visitor has to cruise at least once around the lake, some enjoy stretching out their Bariloche experience to include the Chilean side of the mountains.
The Chilean side is more rustic, less developed and lower-key. Tour companies offer a variety of options for those wishing to cross the mountains, including coordinated bus and boat packages that guide travelers through a weekend of lakes and mountains. Once across the Andes in either direction, you have the option to fly out to Santiago or Buenos Aires.
None of this adventure requires a great deal of effort — and that’s the point of Bariloche. Clear, fresh mountain air offers a respite from the region’s cities, which can be polluted, traffic-clogged and intense. And while many Latin American destinations can be complicated to navigate, Bariloche makes it all as easy as possible.
Munching on a strudel, gazing at mountains you don’t actually have to climb, you understand why generations of Jews, Porteños and countless others have called at this Andean hideaway.