Known as the ‘gateway to Patagonia’, San Carlos de Bariloche in Argentina is a hiker’s dream.
A network of mountain huts in the surrounding Nahuel Huapi National Park makes multi-day hikes achievable for most. Meanwhile, the well-marked trails are ideal for those who may lack technical hiking skills but still want to get off the beaten path.
Ten days of my South American adventure were spent based in the area, hiking the national park, trekking across one of Mount Tronador’s glaciers, whitewater rafting the clear turquoise waters of the Manso River and retiring to Bariloche’s quaint yet bustling centre to refuel with its famous craft beers and chocolate.
Bariloche should be a must visit on any adventurer’s bucket list. And hopefully, my tips below will come in handy.
Head straight to Club Andino Bariloche
Located in the centre of Bariloche, Club Andino Bariloche is the local mountaineering organisation and should be the first stop for anybody looking to explore the national park on foot.
As well as maps, details on the various refugios (mountain huts) and access to accurate weather conditions, the well-informed team can advise you on the best hike for your experience and expectations. All for free!
While you can do all of the hikes independently and at no cost, Club Andino also offers a range of guided extras (such as the Castaño Overa Glacier hike that we did) and transport to and from Pampa Linda, where many of the trails begin. Basically, these guys are the font of all knowledge when it comes to exploring the area.
Decide if you want to camp or stay in refugios
Refugios are the network of mountain huts that scatter the national park’s mountains, lakes, and ravines. These vary drastically in size, style, and condition.
The first refugio we stayed in on a three-day hike was called Otto Meiling. It was old, freezing (as it was located directly next to the glacier) and had just a few mattresses strewn on the floor for the sleeping arrangements. Yet I wouldn’t change it for the world.
By contrast, the next night was spent in Refugio Agonstino Rocco, which was only built in 2012 and offers sweeping wooden floors, showers, comfy dorm beds, a huge wine list and floor to ceiling windows to give ultimate access to the surrounding views.
Prices range from AR $225 to AR $1,200 depending on which refugio you are in, what season it is, and whether you want dinner and breakfast included (whatever dish is on the menu that day, such as pasta or pie).
It’s worth bearing in mind that refugios operate on a no booking, first-come-first-served basis. So, in busy season, you’ll likely be getting cozy with your fellow hikers as you all cram in.
For those extra budget-conscious hikers, or simply those looking for a hardier experience, camping is also a possible outside most refugios at no cost.
Pick your trail
There are various trails you can take, ranging from one-day jaunts to several day expeditions. Refugio Frey is a popular day hike, although I’d highly recommend staying the night and doing the route both ways (and taking a very cold dip in the lake the next morning).
Most of the trails that I went on are very well maintained and marked, although spotting the red dots camouflaged against red rocks on some of the trails can get tricky.
Compass and map reading skills would definitely be useful. I have neither of these and although I didn’t get into any trouble, I certainly would have felt more confident if I’d had them.
One of the deciding factors for me when choosing what route to do was that I wanted a real taste of wilderness. Some trails are definitely busier than others depending on their difficulty and the season you are hiking in.
For example, Refugio Frey was a fairly busy trail, yet our route back from Refugio Agonstino Rocco was practically deserted.
Think about your timings
Near the end of our stay in Bariloche, we planned to hike up to Refugio Lopez. We’d indulged in one too many craft beers the night before and ended up leaving much later than planned, thinking it’d be fine because the hike was meant to be fairly easy.
I ended up turning back an hour in as it was getting dark. Although one of my fellow hikers Yann made it to the refugio no problem, it wasn’t a risk I wanted to take.
I was a bit disappointed in myself at the time, but every cloud has a silver lining and myself and Jatin walked to the nearest village instead, spending an unexpected night in the charming Colonia Suiza sharing great food and live music.
Plan your gear
Regardless of whether you decide to camp or stay in refugios, you’ll need to take a sleeping bag, which can be rented from Club Andino if you don’t have your own.
If you plan to eat at the refugios this significantly impacts the amount of weight you’ll need to carry, as just a few snacks will suffice and some bits and pieces for sandwiches for lunch.
Most refugios offer clean drinking water, so you can refill bottles there, but check first and pack more than you think you’ll need in case your hike takes longer than you thought.
The one thing I would have found useful was trekking poles, but this is very much personal preference. We eventually made our own from very hardy bamboo, which can be found along most trails.
Have you visited Bariloche? What were your favourite hikes? Let me know in the comments below. If you’re heading to Argentina I’d love to know your plans.