Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 17, 2017

© Margo Pfeiff

Horseback riding at Puella in Parque Vicente Perez Rosales, Chile’s first national park.

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Andean journey

The Wild West meets Bavaria on a trip through the mountains between Chile and Argentina

With a flamboyant twist of the wrist, the Argentinian border guard slammed his stamp onto my passport and I was officially a woman without a country. I plunked myself down on a log outside the wooden cabin that passes for the Argentinian customs post in the middle of the Andes to contemplate this rare diplomatic limbo: ushered out of Argentina, it would be another two hours before I officially entered Chile.

In the distance was the volcanic peak of 3500-metre Mount Tronodor, white with the glaciers whose cloudy turquoise meltwaters fill Lago Frias which lapped at my feet. “Welcome to the middle of nowhere,” said a fellow traveller who took a seat beside me.

I was travelling a remote route from Argentina into Chile through the Andes mountains that create the two countries’ 5150-kilometre-long frontier. Border crossings can be stomach churning if you are squeezed inside public transport on winding, high altitude roads. So I opted for a more adventurous route, a staccato journey of bus and boat rides across three lakes, over mountains, through rainforests and down river valleys.

This traverse first became a popular tourist route in 1913 when an adventurous guide of Swiss descent named Ricardo Roth Schutz began leading groups across the passes on mules and small boats. These days about 60,000 people annually make the Cruce de Lagos crossing in both directions; it is said that years ago, one of them was Che Guevara.

Cruce de Lagos, or Lakes Crossing, is a joint Chilean/Argentine company linking San Carlos de Bariloche at the northern end of Argentina’s Patagonia with Puerto Varas in Chile’s Lakes District. It’s possible in summer to do the 190-kilometre trip in a single day, but I decided to spend some time en route.

Argentine lederhosen?

Bariloche is a pleasant, touristy ski resort town of 110,000 — Banff with a Spanish accent — on the shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi, a popular destination for some of the best skiing in South America. That German immigrants were responsible for the town’s flavour is immediately clear in streets lined with chocolate makers, though they fall short of European quality. Menus at restaurants with names like Familia Weiss (tel: 011-54-2944-435-789; restauranteweiss.com.ar) serve local specialties such as venison, smoked trout and spatzle with goulash. Here, at the northern reaches of Patagonia, vegetarians may starve: one parilla* (barbecue place) served “super-brochettes” that stacked wild boar, lamb, venison and beef on a spear.

There is a cosy aroma of wood smoke from fireplaces and the town has a predilection for log architecture. Around the main square where you can have a cheesy photo taken with a St. Bernard complete with fake brandy barrel under its drooling chin, every building from city hall to the visitor’s centre is built of logs. You half expect someone in lederhosen to break out yodelling, but instead you get locals strolling sucking traditional mate tea through metal “straws.” Small wonder troupes of Nazis allegedly made their way to the area after WWII. Rumours abound and so does a book titled Bariloche Nazis: A Tourist Guide written by a journalist who also claims Hitler spent his last years in a farmhouse outside town.

Bariloche is a great base for outdoor fun. One day I rented a mountain bike and cycled in the crisp alpine air along a section of the Circuito Chico, a 60-kilometre route following the lakeshore past a supermarket and even a phone booth built of logs.

And then there’s hiking. The skyline is a zigzag of mountains easily reached by gondolas and chairlifts that run all summer for sightseers and hikers. Atop Cerro Otto, within minutes of a revolving restaurant, I had sweeping views of endless mountains to myself, walking on a trail through a surreal Valdavian forest of gnarled trees draped in moss amid fuchsia bushes dripping red flowers.

The next day, I zipped on a series of chairlifts to the top of the Cerro Catedral ski area, the biggest in South America, and hiked along jagged ridges with 360-degree views including the imposing peak of Tronodor, one of the tallest peaks in Patagonia. This is my style of hiking: ride up to 1100 metres and hike within minutes of a cold beer at the mountain-top lodge.

Fjords and cattle country

My Andes crossing started with an early morning bus trip to Puerto Pañuelo, 32 kilometres west of Bariloche alongside the sprawling luxury Llao Llao Hotel (tel: 011-54-2944-44-8530; www.llaollao.com; doubles from $195). We boarded a comfortable catamaran and motored across Nahuel Huapi Lake, slowing along the way to sound the ship’s horn alongside Sentinel Island in honour of Perito Moreno who is buried there. Moreno was the father of Argentina’s national parks.

As we reached the western tip of the lake, the walls became steep and narrow and the landscape reminded me of Norwegian fjords. At the head was a rustic 1940s hotel at an outpost called Puerto Blest. A short walk away was a little museum set amid dense bamboo and giant alcares trees entwined with vines. This region gets over three metres of rain a year, but on this fall day in mid-March it was clear and sunny. A short road led through the forest to the next lake, tiny turquoise Lago Frias where another, smaller boat took us on the 20-minute crossing to the Argentinian border post.

It’s all organized like clockwork and soon a bus arrived for the 1.5-hour narrow, winding trip through coniferous forest over the shoulder of the Andes and through Chile’s Parque Vicente Perez Rosales. The highest point in the trip is only a brief rise to 1875 metres so there are no altitude issues as there can be in other Andes crossings.

The view opened up as we descended into the broad Peulla River Valley — wide, dry cattle country. We passed a horse-drawn cart on the side of the road near a small cluster of buildings, including Chilean customs, all tucked between the mountains and Lago Todos Los Santos.

“This is not a town or a village,” the guide said of Peulla. “It is just two hotels.” In fact, Peulla is a community of 120 people who work at the rambling, slightly dowdy Hotel Peulla built in 1896 and the Hotel Natura (tel: 011-56-65-560-485; hotelnatura.cl; doubles from $167), an oasis of luxury which opened in 2006.

The hotel was started by Ricardo Roth Schutz who also started the Andes crossings here. He was the grandfather of current owner Alberto Schirmer who grew up in this area and once had a pet puma he took hiking with him. Schutz is revered for being instrumental in creating Chile’s first national park, in which the town sits.

The Andes to yourself

If travellers stop at all, they usually spend just one night, but I wanted a few days of Andean silence. Once the rest of the group set off on the next leg of the journey I trotted off with a guide for a horseback ride through yellow broom in bloom, crossing rivers and watching condors spin in the thermals of the mountains.

There was plenty to keep me busy: I hiked one day through dark tunnels of bamboo and pangue, a giant-leafed relative of rhubarb and on another slipped into a harness to fly on cables strung through 730 metres of tree-top canopies.

Every day just after noon, the boat would arrive from the west and there would be a flurry of activity until 2:30PM when the bus arrived from the east. But by 3PM the hotel had settled back into peace and there would be just a few of us sipping pisco sours at the bar that is made of a great single log or in front of the stone fireplace.

The final boat leg of the trip was a leisurely two-hour cruise across Lago Todos Los Santos. We slowed several times to take on schoolchildren shuttled out in skiffs from houses on the remote shore after a weekend at home.

The Puntiagudo Volcano came into view, a spectacular steep pointy snout with a glacier tucked into its tip. And then there was the perfect symmetry of Osorno, Chile’s answer to Japan’s Mt. Fuji, and which last erupted in 1835, an event witnessed by Charles Darwin.

On the eastern shore of the lake at Petrohue, we boarded one more bus for the last bus journey of our trip, stopping briefly at the Petrohue River Falls before arriving in the charming German-flavoured town of Puerto Varas and headed to Donde el Gordito (tel: 011-56-65-233-425) for a traditional local dinner specialty of conger eel with Margarita sauce, before checking in at the Hotel Puelche (hotelpuelche.com; doubles from $165) for views of the Osorno Volcano and lake.

There are faster ways to cross the Andes, but unless you tackle the route on foot none could put you in such intimate touch with the heart of the mountains. And in such comfort.

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Comments

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  1. On November 15, 2012, Jamal Uddin said:
    During a wine tour we enjoyed a day long bus ride through Andes from Mendoza to Santiago,Chile.Destruction wrought by earthquake to the old rail track and buildings and huge menacing boulders hanging precipitously are unforgatable sights.The highway zigzagged like a giant serpent through sparse vegatation and snow caped mountain in the summer as if guarding a shimmering lake and a hotel high up. It was a memorable trip indeed.

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