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Natural paradise in the national park

Equipped with enough food, water, diesel and well packed backpacks we left Cristina's Cabanas Las Lumas and started the short distance to the National Park Los Alerces. Just a few kilometers from Esquel, the road climbs steadily, accompanied by great views of the valley, until we reached the entrance gate to the national park. We learned from the friendly park ranger upon our arrival that unfortunately some hiking trails were closed in the central part of the park, so we would rather spend the weekend in the more northern, remote part. Generally, only part of the national park is open to visitors, the rest consists of protected area - mainly to protect the rare Alerce trees. These are similar to the redwood trees in the USA and can live over 3000 years - an unimaginable age! Anxious to see when we would discover our first Alerce, we made our way to the northern part of the park. The part of the national park that is accessible to visitors can be driven through completely by car on a more or less good gravel road. There are numerous small and large hikes on the dirt road - up the mountains that can reach 2000 meters, along one of the many rivers, or around one of the 14 lakes located in the park. We spent the whole day slowly working our way north from hike to hike. The first stop we made was just a few kilometers from the park entrance to a viewpoint above Lago Futalaufquen - what a super view in glorious sunshine and with very few visitors. After that we continued to a small waterfall and since we were making good progress, we decided to tackle the long hike to the hidden lagoon. For this hike we were glad to be well equipped, because it went up the mountains for several hours. With every hike you dive into the untouched nature and find yourself between the trees, singing birds and insects immediately as in another world. Accompanied by great views, we reached the lagoon just when the rain started, so we took our lunch break in the dry shelter of the trees – unfortunately we could not avoid getting wet. As always, the rain disappeared after a short time and in the sunshine the crystal clear water of the lagoon glistened. We diligently studied the flora and fauna map that the park ranger had given us at the entrance and made first progress in our tree and plant knowledge. The variation was really enormous, but we still had to wait for our first alerce. Back at the Gaucha, we confirmed at the visitor's register that we had arrived down in one piece and that nobody had to look for us. Then we headed for the campground "Bahia Solis". Once again the rain started, and the camping guy Lucas welcomed us, gave us the most beautiful overnight place directly at the lake and offered us to our surprise warm food, hot and cold beverages and snacks from his small store - we had not counted on that. We were prepared with food so we declined the offer and looked forward to the announced hot showers. From the rain at the lagoon, ourselves and our things had become neatly wet on the first day, so our expectations on a hot shower were big. Lucas had not promised too much, because the showers were really sensational. The rain had stopped, so we were able to prepare the Gaucha for the night with the last of the daylight. We warmed ourselves by the fire and put potatoes, vegetables and stuffed peppers on the grill – we also warmed up our pre-cooked pasta in a pan over the fire. The beer was chilled in the lake but, with temperatures around 0 degrees, was hardly necessary. Under shining stars, we crawled warmly wrapped and dead tired in the Gaucha into our first night in the National Park.

The night was freezing cold outside, but the Gaucha insulates surprisingly well and in our sleeping bags we could stand it well. The rain pattered all night on our roof, but in the morning it fortunately took a break we saw the first rays of sunshine over the campsite. So it was time to get up and go to the lake for breakfast with mate - what a start to the day! From land we watched the fly fishermen on their boats in the water. In this fishing sport, very popular here in Patagonia, a long fishing line is flung through the air with rotational movements, so that it touches down on the water several times before placing the lure under the water surface. On one hand, this is necessary because the bait is too light to cast, and at the same time it simulates an insect and thus potential prey for the fish. Trout species introduced from Europe and the U.S. now dominate Patagonian waters and have largely displaced native fish species. After this morning spectacle, we packed our backpacks and were off early on the gravel road of the national park. First we went to Lago Verde - as the name suggests, a shimmering green lake. After a small climb through the backcountry, we had a great view of the lake, where a well-equipped lodge is located. Afterwards we would go down to the river Rio Arrayanes, which connects the northern Lago Rivadavia with the western Lago Menéndez and the southern Lago Futalaufquen. Already the day before we drove some kilometers along the Rio Arrayanes through the park and could admire its turquoise crystal clear water. A narrow hiking trail led us deeper and deeper into the Patagonian mixed forest, further and further downstream. By now we could already distinguish the common tree species - radal, coihue or cypress were familiar to us. Here at the river we came across for the first time with a large amount of yellow-orange arrayan trees, which transform the entire riverbank into a mystical place due to their special color and branch network. And then, finally, the time had come: at the end of the path, our first alerce was waiting for us. Over 800 years old, it has withstood countless storms, floods and fires and stands over the entire riverbank not only by its size, but more importantly by its overall presence and special aura. A very impressive and special place. Happy and fascinated we went back to the campsite, where we completed the small good 5 km long "house circuit", along the Lago Rivadavia, before we took off our hiking boots and trotted barefoot into the icy cold lake water. Clearly too cold for swimming, but ideal for an evening kayak trip. Lucas spontaneously rented us a 2-man kayak and with it we paddled to a small island and back. We didn't feel our feet after a few minutes, but the fun was worth it and the paddling was a great change from hiking. After that we were off to the hot shower and the warming campfire. The remaining potatoes and vegetables came on the grill (we unfortunately realized that we had bought a cucumber instead of a zucchini), plus we had sensational burgers freshly prepared by Lucas colleagues from the campsite and the remaining beer from our own lake cooling - what else could you have? Except maybe a few degrees higher temperature ... =)

Second night, the second time temperatures below freezing and again nightly continuous rain. In the morning we were lucky; once again the rain stopped briefly - but this time only for a few minutes and unfortunately the weather forecast for the day was not very promising : maximum 4 degrees, a lot of wind and a lot of rain. The ideal weather for a boat trip =) It's all a matter of attitude and the right clothes! We had breakfast on the Gaucha and off we went to the small harbor in the center of the national park. Since we were very early, we decided to take a morning hike in the rain before heading out on the boat. At the beginning we were warm and our outdoor gear got a rain check. But after over one hour under the pouring rain, Marina's hiking boots, which had already counted their best days, unfortunately didn't hold up to the water test, resulting in wet and cold feet for the rest of the day. The park ranger at the entrance had sent us relaxed on the circular hike, but with every kilometer further we realized that we would not make it to the car in time to take our hot mate tea with us to the boat. At the end it didn't matter, we had enough provisions and (cold) water with us. Slowly the other excursion participants arrived - a colorful mixture of Argentine tourists of all ages, whereby especially a group of older ladies attracted our attention. Unfortunately, the ladies were not at all prepared for the weather and arrived at the boat chattering with plastic bags and sneakers. Our two park guides and the captain were on board and we were ready to go. Just in time for departure the sun showed up briefly, then it disappeared again behind thick clouds for the rest of the day. With the boat we went across Lago Menéndez, past a hanging glacier, which unfortunately we could hardly see because of the clouds. After just under an hour we reached an island, in the protected part of the park. Here the vegetation was still 100% pristine and the rainy weather gave the humid forest an authentic flair. The ladies went with one of the guides on the short trail, we put in with the other guide the long round, which should become the most beautiful and most impressive hike in the whole park. For about two hours we walked through the forest, up and down hills, along rivers and rapids to the highlight of the island, deep inside the forest: A 2600 year old Alerce - Wow, that takes your breath away! Our guide told us a lot about the park, the peculiarities of the Alerces and why they are strictly protected nowadays. He also told us about the climatic differences of the different vegetation zones in Patagonia as well as the causes of the Atlantic and Pacific winds and the influence on the precipitation, so that we learned a lot besides marveling at the sights. Impressed, soaked, shivering and tired we went back to the boat and in the rain again to our campsite. The guys in the camping could hardly believe their eyes and looked at us incredulously when we told them that we wanted to stay another night. What? In the rain? Yes! Their hot shower ruined all departure plans and so we used it again before we prepared rice with avocado and tuna in the Gaucha and treated ourselves to a bottle of white wine =)

This night was the record night in terms of cold, so we were looking forward to a hot drink for breakfast. To our surprise, the mountains around us were covered up to half with white snow dew - proof of the cold. Since the guys from the campground were apparently still slumbering in their warm beds, we unfortunately had to leave without hot water for the mate, left the money in an envelope, opened the gate and drove out. The park showed itself early in the morning again from its most beautiful side, the sun came out and we got again great views of the blue lakes under the white glittering mountains - we almost stayed longer =) 15 kilometers outside the park we stopped at the first gas station, ordered hot toasts and with Wi-Fi, went over all the missed messages of the past four days. Then we continued with warm mate tea until we turned north again onto Ruta 40. The Ruta 40 is really a dream road and leads through unique landscapes. After just under an hour we reached Lago Puelo - a village at the foot of a lake and another very small national park. With warm 15 degrees and sunshine, we climbed the mountain to the viewpoint and shared our snacks with the hungry birds. Along the river we went back and we were already looking forward to another snack and the last cool beer in the sun directly at the lake, when the afternoon suddenly took a different turn. Instead of the laundry to dry, Marina came back from the car with bad news: It had happened! She left the keys inside the Gaucha and all the doors were locked. What a shock! To our incredible luck, we saw the key dangling on Marina's outer backpack pocket on the back seat and out of pure coincidence, exactly this window was a bit opened - hope arose! The first attempts to open the window further failed miserably and first fishing attempts with stick and line were also doomed to failure. Even a passing fisherman, complete with professional fishing equipment, could not help us. So we turned to the park rangers in search of a suitable wire with which one could fish out the key through the window. Marina set out to find it and returned with Javier, an extremely friendly park ranger. Christian, meanwhile, had tried his luck with a piece of wire he had found, attached to a string and successfully pulled the jacket that was stuck between the key and the window, through the window. Javier had a large piece of wire with him and immediately set to work motivated. After an hour of unsuccessful fumbling with the window pane, it was clear that this was not going to work. We were about to cut open a plastic cover over the window to get a better grip by hand, when suddenly things started to work. At first, Javier had managed to press his hand somewhat painfully through the open gap in the pane, and with our combined forces we were able to bend the plastic cover up a bit. With her slimmer hands, Marina now had good access and chose a new tactic: the heavy backpack was pulled up with the wire so that she could get to the top opening where her purse with the spare key was. What a joy when she successfully pulled it out. I guess that's what you call luck in disguise! We thanked Javier and excited, we set off on the drive towards El Bolson. The village, about 100 kilometers south of the big city of Bariloche has the reputation of a hippie stronghold and when you arrive you know why: Super landscape, surrounded by great mountains, cheap cost of living, enough sun and an easy-going lifestyle floats through the streets. In the third attempt searching, we found a campground, which was more like a garden of a house, but the large garden invited us to camp. Accompanied by three dogs, we pitched our tent, took a hot shower, and then we were off to a brewery for a delicious dinner: a hot lamb stew was just the best thing after the cold days in the national park. The next day we had a big hike to the "Cajón del Azul" outside the gates of El Bolson on the program, so we went early to the tent.

Even in the tent, the thermometer dropped below 0 degrees at night and so we were glad when the first rays of sunshine woke us up in the morning. We used them to dry everything and then soon set off. Just 15 minutes outside of El Bolson, we took a gravel road to the starting point of our hike. The Gaucha was parked and the backpacks were fully loaded again. We first went downhill to the riverbed before the long climb through the forest followed, always going up and always along the river. The river lived up to its name "Rio azul" (blue river) right from the start, its water shimmering an enormous turquoise-blue. After two and a half hours of steep ascent we reached the first hut with the meaningful name "La Playita". And indeed it had a wonderful beach to offer. We had breakfast with the sandwiches we had brought with us and enjoyed the great view of the water. Then we continued for another two hours, passing two more huts, until we finally arrived at our destination for the day. The thundering water could be heard from far away. The river squeezed through a canyon here, which led to considerably strong rapids. Before we looked at this spectacle up close, we had a well-deserved cerveza break, together with the two cats of the mountain hut. They almost didn't want to let us go and ended up getting the last crumbs from our lunch. Then we went down to the canyon. The path became narrower and narrower and the viewpoints of the water whipping by became more and more impressive. After we had seen enough, we slowly but surely made our way back, but not without testing the refreshing ice-cold mountain water ourselves before. At a quiet place behind a bridge there were natural pools, which were certainly well visited bathing places in high summer. We had over 20 degrees, but the water felt like freezing. Nevertheless, we left our backpack down, took off our clothes and went for a few moments off into the cool water. Fortunately, the sun dried us quickly and after a few meters of walking, the cold shock was overcome. Already in the evening, after a total of 20 kilometers of hiking, we reached the parking lot. Tired but happy, the Gaucha was waiting for us and soon we went off, the last 100 kilometers on the legendary Ruta 40 to Bariloche. The dream road lived up to its reputation and offered fabulous views of the mountain scenery. Marina steered the Gaucha through the dusk until we reached the gates of Bariloche. Many people had already warned us that the population of the town had exploded in recent years, and along the entrance road coming from the south this became immediately clear: the town seems to be growing along Ruta 40 more and more independently, as you can see from the many newly built houses and huts. Then we already rolled through the center of the city and along the Nahuel Huapi lake in the national park of the same name, in which Bariloche lays. Only two kilometers outside the center we had booked a small hut for a week and the owner Catarina already welcomed us warmly. A hot stove and an equally hot shower were an outstanding welcome before we hastily set off on foot to the nearest brewery. It was packed at 10 p.m. because Argentina was playing Brazil in the World Cup qualifiers. We watched the second half with pizza and beer, but unfortunately the game didn't live up to its promise and ended with a boring 0:0. Nobody was really happy that Argentina reached the World Cup qualification, because everyone was looking forward to a win against the neighboring country. After the final whistle, the crowd quickly dispersed and we were finally looking forward to a real bed again. How happy the little things can make us=) sein Wasser doch enorm türkis-blau. Nach zweieinhalb Stunden steilem Aufstieg erreichten wir die erste Hütte mit dem vielsagenden Namen „La Playita“. Und in der Tat hatte sie einen wundervollen Strand zu bieten. Wir frühstückten unsere mitgebrachten Sandwiches und genossen den tollen Ausblick aufs Wasser. Danach ging es nochmal knapp zwei Stunden weiter, an zwei weiteren Hütten vorbei, bis wir schließlich an unserem Tagesziel ankamen. Das donnernde Wasser war schon von Weitem zu hören. Der Fluss zwängte sich hier durch einen Canyon, wodurch es zu zum Teil beachtlich starken Stromschnellen kam. Bevor wir uns dieses Spektakel aus der Nähe ansahen, gab es eine wohlverdiente Cerveza-Pause, gemeinsam mit den zwei Katzen der Berghütte. Sie wollten uns fast nicht gehen lassen und bekamen am Ende doch noch die letzten Krümel von unserem Lunch ab. Dann ging es hinab zum Canyon. Der Weg wurde immer schmaler und die Aussichtspunkte auf das vorbeipeitschende Wasser immer beeindruckender. Nachdem wir uns satt gesehen hatten, traten wir langsam aber sicher den Rückweg an. Aber nicht ohne das erfrischend eiskalte Bergwasser selbst mal zu testen. An einer ruhigen Stelle hinter einer Brücke gab es natürliche Pools, die im Hochsommer sicherlich gut besuchte Badestellen waren. Wir hatten zwar über 20 Grad, das Wasser hat jedoch gefühlt den Gefrierpunkt gerade so überschritten. Trotzdem hieß es Rucksack runter, raus aus den Klamotten und für einige wenige Momente ab ins kühle Nass. Zum Glück trocknete uns die Sonne schnell und nach wenigen Metern Fußmarsch, war der Kälteschock überwunden. Erst am Abend erreichten wir nach insgesamt 20 Kilometern Wanderung platt aber happy den Parkplatz, auf der die Gaucha auf uns wartete und dann ging es ab, die letzten 100 Kilometer auf der legendären Ruta 40 bis Bariloche. Die Traumstraße wurde ihrem Ruf mehr als gerecht und bot sagenhafte Ausblicke auf die Bergkulisse. Marina steuerte die Gaucha durch die Abenddämmerung, bis wir die Tore Bariloches erreichten. Viele Leute hatten uns bereits gewarnt, dass die Einwohnerzahl der Stadt in den letzten Jahren explodiert sei und entlang der Eingangsstraße von Süden kommend wurde das auch sofort klar: Die Stadt scheint sich entlang der Ruta 40 quasi selbstständig immer weiter zu vergrößern, wie man an den vielen neugebauten Häuser und Hütten sehen kann. Dann rollten wir auch schon durch das Zentrum der Stadt und entlang dem Nahuel Huapi See im gleichnamigen Nationalpark, der direkt an Bariloche grenzt. Nur zwei Kilometer außerhalb des Zentrums hatten wir eine kleine Hütte für eine Woche gebucht und die Besitzerin Catarina hieß uns auch schon herzlich willkommen. Ein heißer Ofen und eine ebenso heiße Dusche waren ein überragender Empfang, ehe wir uns hastig zu Fuß in die nächstgelegene Brauerei aufmachten. Sie war gegen 22 Uhr brechend voll, denn es spielte Argentinien gegen Brasilien in der WM-Qualifikation. Die zweite Halbzeit verfolgten wir bei Pizza und Bier, das Spiel hielt aber leider nicht, was es versprach und endete mit einem langweiligen 0:0. Dass Argentinien damit die WM-Qualifikation in der Tasche hatte, freue niemand so richtig, denn alle waren heiß auf einen Sieg gegen das Nachbarland. So verflüchtigte sich die Menge nach Abpfiff zügig und wir freuten uns endlich wieder auf ein richtiges Bett. Wie glücklich ein doch die kleinen Dinge machen können =)


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