Argentina’s Wild West: Bariloche to Esquel
The fascination of Patagonia lies partly in its landscape and partly in its history; both are key to this excursion. The landscapes in this region of Patagonia range from steppe to alpine lakes, with river valleys and dusty flats that resemble the Texas panhandle mixed in. The towns offer little in the way of special attractions but the people are very friendly. And if you like the Old West in the US, you’ll know that this is the spot that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid picked as their home to rest up from bank robbing in the US - and where for a few years they were just ranchers. Did they end their days here? Who knows?
We started our trip in Bariloche after several days there on the gorgeous lakefront. You could just grab a rental car in the airport - or nearby - on arrival and start driving. The entirely-paved R258 leads out of midtown Bariloche, and then into the Nahuel Huapi national park. The drive borders lakes, and then runs along mostly dry river valleys, with sweeping views. There are a few spots to stop, and a turnoff at Villa Mascardi for services, or access to Tronador mountain - and some very secluded hotels (see the Bonnie Tucker’s article in the Travel section, 30 Nov. 2002). Mascardi has fuel, including an ACA station. Then you’re on your own until you reach El Bolsón, about 130 km south. Just north of Bolsón is the establishment that makes the namesake beer, in a range of styles, including one with a chili pepper in the bottle. In the center of town are various restaurants (La Calabaza provided a fine quick meal) and a large craft fair, daily in summer, weekends in the off-season. El Bolsón attracted many counter-culture types in the late sixties and seventies, and there is a definite flavor to the place for those of us who came of age in that era. It’s also the home to a confiteria honoring Sheriff Martin Sheffield, a self-styled Texas lawman who came to the area in the late 19th century to look for gold (in Esquel), but became famous for his ability to induce folks who should have known better to support his search for a pre-historic monster that he reported sighting in a nearby lake. South of El Bolsón is a verdant valley, the origin of many of the smaller fruits and berries exported by Argentina - strawberries, raspberries, cherries, gooseberries, and a host of others. There are several fine lakes here with parks or nature reserves, such as Lago Puelo and Rio Azul.
Bolsón clearly is a central staging point for many people, but on to Esquel. You have a choice of roads. Route 71 leads south, on a ripio or gravel surface, into the Parque Los Alerces, and the other, a paved stretch of the legendary Ruta 40, takes you west of the park. Many guidebooks will recommend the first route, on the basis of the “boring scenery” along Rte. 40. That’s a question of the heart...as for me, I love the huge empty landscapes of the steppe bordering Route 40, and can’t imagine them as boring. The many grasses, bowing their heads in the wind, often sheltering wildflowers, are quietly beautiful. (W.H. Hudson put it directly - if Patagonia is characterized only by its negative qualities: no trees, no houses, no water, why have these empty landscapes taken possession of my imagination?)
A much better argument on behalf of Route 71, for history buffs, is that it goes to Cholila, the spot where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are believed to have lived for several years after fleeing the US (the ranch is still there, and charges an admission fee). Part of this route lies outside the national park in the steppes, and will also give you a sense of the emptiness of the terrain - if Cassidy and the Kid really did come here, along with the beautiful Etta Place, they must have been driven wild with boredom. Even today, as Adrian Gimenez Hutton notes in his travelogue on Chatwin’s Patagonia, it’s a dusty beat-up town whose only charm is its setting. (And watch out, the lake at Cholila is known as “Los Mosquitos!” ) At Lago Rivadavia you enter the park proper, and 27 km further on reach Lago Verde, the launching point for boat trips to the ancient stands of alerces (similar to sequoias). Beyond that is Futalaufken, or park HQ, where you’ll find an upscale inn, a good spot for a night or two. And 45 km after that you reach Esquel.
Our principal destination was Esquel, and so we continued on Route 258 to the junction with route 40. Seven km on, a short detour leads to the Leleque Museum. The museum displays the history of Patagonia, with four rooms of exhibits and an annex styled as a “boliche” that serves as cafe and craft store. The complex stands very close to the rails of the Trochita train, which passes that way once a week on its long-haul roundtrip between El Maitén and Esquel. Its collections came from local families, and the archival work is supported by the National Research Council, CONICET, and its Patagonian research center, CENPAT. Route 40 then winds through another 75 kilometers, devoid of visible human settlement except fences, and, far off in the distance, the railbed of the train made famous, in literature, by Paul Theroux - the Old Patagonian Express, or La Trochita.
On the outskirts of Esquel are three conical hills, remnants of volcanoes, and several crossing points for La Trochita - when the train is running, you’ll see dozens of photographers lined up to get shots as it passes. The town has a typical grid pattern, very reminiscent of a West Texas settlement. The Cumbres Blancas on the outskirts offers the most up-to-date lodging, with a suite on the top floor and comfortable rooms below. And, wonders never cease, no-smoking rooms are standard! There are several choices for dining, not to mention an Irish pub, and don’t omit a stop at the Hotel Argentino, whose bar is a wonderful blend of bar, boliche, and museum (25 de Mayo 862).
Esquel offers trekking; horseback rides which might take you to Trevelín, one of the old Welsh towns of the upper Chubut valley; trips into the Parque los Alerces; and excursions on La Trochita, whose rails measure only 3/4 of a meter between them. La Trochita runs as a daily tourist service in summer, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., to Nahuel Pan, the first station on the line - where members of that indigenous community will sell you crafts and small food items. The round trip is just a bit over two and a half hours. For the real train buff, there is a “Public Service” trip of 6 hours and 15 minutes, starting from El Maitén on Wednesday at 2 p.m., and returning from Esquel on Thursdays at 11 am. Either is just a tiny taste of what it was like to be a passenger in the days when it might be necessary to descend from your train car to help remove snow from the rails, on a journey of 400 km to IngeneroJacobi that could take as much as a day. But there is no doubt there would be buyers for that trip, if the Argentine railroads were to provide it; La Trochita is quite charming, and the cars were fully occupied. (We paid a fee to our travel agent to get the tickets ahead of time and were glad we did.)
If you don’t arrive in Esquel via Route 71 and the park, take an excursion into the Los Alerces Park for the day. Most of the road is paved up to the park management area (45 km from Esquel, only 15 km of which are pretty bumpy ripio). On into the park, another 30 km on packed dirt/ripio, you’ll reach Lago Verde and the earlier mentioned boat trips. Along the road are many camping sites and the occasional hostería, which can provide you with tea and toast. The road is a lakeside road for its entire trajectory in the park, and is a very pleasant drive. Horseback riding is available at several spots in the park, and can also be booked at agencies in Esquel.
If you are not heading further south into Patagonia, in summer there is a limited service to Esquel airport...otherwise, it’s a long but never-boring drive back to Bariloche for a flight to Buenos Aires.
Leleque Museum: Closing times are Wednesday, and all of May and June. Hours in January and February 11-7, otherwise 11 to 5. <email@example.com>
Cumbres Blancas hotel. Avenida Ameghino (Route 259) 1683; tel 2945-455100 fax 455400.
Chocolates and other souvenirs can be had at Dulzuras de Esquel. Rivadavia & 25 de Mayo.
The most-recommended restaurant: Cassis, Sarmiento 130 in the town center; 450576
In the park: Hostería Futalaufen, 2945-471008 and Hostería Cume Hué, 2945-453659.