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The Black Glacier. photos by Amanda Schoenberg.

Refuge Hopping in the Mountains of Patagonia

By Amanda Schoenberg

Trudging up the last unforgiving zigzag of Cerro Negro ("Black Peak") in Argentina 's Northern Patagonia was nothing less than brutal for our inexperienced hiking team. But the rewards were staggering once we climbed to the summit, where an incredible black lagoon and the friendly "Refugio Italia" awaited.

Our early-morning foray began as a mild ascent on a well-marked forest trail from the village of Colonia Suiza , which crossed a clear, cold stream and waterfall. After a four-hour climb with extraordinary views, including the gothic spires of " Cathedral Peak," the trees ended and the rocky path to the refuge began.

Refuge hopping in the two million acre Nahuel Huapi National Park is a mainstay among backpackers, as avid hikers from Israel to Brazil tap into the natural and inexpensive wonders of Northern Patagonia.

After the collapse of the Argentine economy, traveling is significantly less expensive for international visitors, many of whom make their way to Patagonia 's famed terrain.

The tourist mecca of San Carlos de Bariloche, on the Nahuel Huapi lake, forms a convenient base for exploring. Persistent tourism companies often entice visitors into organized excursions, but hiking to refuges can be a much less expensive and intimate view of the area.

Six fully functional refuges dot the national park, with other refuges, campsites and hostels also nearby.

To the Red roofed Reguio

Upon arrival at the tiny red-roofed Refugio Italia, I collapsed onto the only seat available- a bare wooden bench in a common room overflowing with hiking garb- hoping a meal would appear. Unbeknownst to us, the refuge does not routinely provide lunch, although they did make an exception for a discouraged Argentine family with two small children in tow. We made do on fruit and crackers and rested for the rest of the afternoon, while other visitors trickled in. Many sat in the bright sun glinting off the lagoon or scrambled across the rocks to another lookout point.

Making friends at the Refugio Italia.

Although the space has only eight tables and looks as though it could sleep about 20 comfortably, the official capacity is 60. A coveted spot on the bunk beds costs $7 ($2.40 USD), while a full meal is $8 ($2.75 USD) and use of the kitchen is $3 ($1 USD). A few tents dotted the area around the refuge, by far the most inexpensive alternative at $3 pesos per person ($1 USD).

Refugio Italia was built in 1969, in three years of what must have been backbreaking labor. Mario Varela, a photographer and writer, who says he has been obsessed with the mountains since he was a child, now runs the refuge, while Polly Ornagye and Sebastian Cardozo cook, provide trail information and keep up already high spirits at the refuge.

Impressively Rugged Children

Groups of Argentine and Israeli young people, middle-aged couples and a few families (with impressively rugged children) formed our new little community. In the know backpackers examined well-worn trail maps and old travel magazines, while chatting about new routes and old mishaps.

Many had arrived at the Italia Refuge via a three-hour expert-level hike from the Mount Lopez refuge. Others were headed back down to Colonia Suiza or on to other hikes. Options for longer trips include the Cloud Walk, a two-day expert trek passing over the Frias River, the intermediate five-hour hike up Flores de León peak with panoramic views of Mount Tronador and the five-hour hike from Pampa Linda to Otto Meiling refuge ( www.eco-family.com ).

After a bright orange sunset over the lagoon, we were plunged into darkness. There is no electricity at the refuge, but a wooden stove kept us warm, while cartons of cheap wine, cards and strumming guitars kept us entertained.

Refuge living is necessarily eco-conscious. No toilet paper can be deposited in toilets- anything at the refuge has been brought up to it, and all waste must also be returned back to civilization.

The Andes staggering beauty cannot be overstated.

Dinner was a simple plate of rice, vegetables and meat, but about ten minutes after the meal began at the Argentine standard of 9:30 , I could barely keep my eyes open. Sleepy French tourists at our table said visitors who stayed up late and left in mid-morning, unlike prompt European backpackers, surprised them.

When we trudged up a steep flight of stairs to the crowded dormitory, the party continued, but after waking at 5 a.m. that morning, getting to sleep was not a problem.

In the morning, we briefly considered Varela's recommendation to try
an exciting ice trek across a narrow summit- but thought better of it when our muscles disagreed. Instead, we descended the same tough route like seasoned, if tired, backpackers.

Hitting the Trails

Club Andino Bariloche (02944-422266) operates an information center in Bariloche, with detailed maps for sale and hiking, camping and refuge tips in Nahuel Huapi. The hectic tourist office (02944-429850) in the Bariloche civic center did not have information on hikes or refuges, directing visitors to planned excursions only.

Inside the Refugio Italia.

For more information, see the government tourism Website at www.turismo.gov.ar , the national parks site at www.parquesnacionales.com.ar or a helpful regional site at www.patagonias.net or www.bariloche.org .

Getting there

The cheapest option is a backache-inducing 19-hour trip by bus. Several bus companies, including Via Bariloche, El Valle and Andesmar operate overnight trips from Buenos Aires (none had working websites at press time). Airlines including Aerolineas Argentinas ( www.aerolineas.com.ar) , American Falcon ( www.americanfalconair.com , unavailable at press time), Southern Winds (www.sw.com.ar) and LADE ( www.lade.com.ar ) offer direct flights from Buenos Aires to Bariloche for a presumably more comfortable experience.

The nearest town to Cerro Negro, Colonia Suiza, has a few log-cabin homes and a popular artisan fair. To reach Colonia Suiza, take a half-hour bus ride from Bariloche on the Number 10 or 11 bus or a taxi for about $30 ($10 USD).

When to go

The refuge is open during the Argentina's summer months from November to March, depending on weather conditions. For more information, see the Website at www.lagunanegra.com (not functioning at press time) or contact 1555-9354.

Highlights Near Bariloche

Although quick-paced guided tours left me less than enthused, they are a useful way of seeing a lot in a short time. The 105-mile all day excursion to the base of Mt. Tronador was exhausting but enjoyable, complete with visits to the Gutiérrez and Mascardi lakes, the beautiful Hotel Tronador and the eerie Black Glacier. The receding glacier has mixed with dirt and sediment as it slides down the mountain, forming a grayish coating.

Another option is a four hour-drive north of Bariloche on the seven-lake circuit to San Martin de los Andes, a smaller, log cabin-filled town. The drive passes through the less dramatic, but beautiful lakes of Lanín National Park. An alternate route goes through the desolate "Enchanted Valley," with immense sandstone rock formations.

Paragliding is another must in the region. After running and jumping off the side of a mountain attached to an instructor, the ride is surprisingly relaxing, not unlike coasting above the mountains in a swing. My excellent instructor was Ernesto Gutierrez (parapente@bariloche.com.ar, 02944-462234). Close to Bariloche at Otto Mountain, paragliding costs $120 ($41 USD) for at least 20 minutes.


Amanda Schoenberg most recently worked as a reporter for The Tico Times, in San Jose, Costa Rica and has edited a Spanish-language medical journal in New York. Contact her.

 

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