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Patagonia – A Tour Leader’s …

by ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010 andean_lake_banner

As an Argentine-American who has spent life moving around the world since childhood, I am fortunate to say that I live in a truly marvelous part of the world. Bariloche, in the Patagonian Lakes District, still takes my breath away every morning I step out and take in the beauty of the lake below and the mountains that surround us – whether it is a heavenly summer day, a rainy week in fall, or a winter day of snow and wind.  Travelers come from around the world to the mythical Patagonia – to participate in all types of outdoor pursuits from skiing, kayaking, trekking, horseback riding, climbing, fishing, rafting, and of course bicycling! After years of exploration I have discovered that a bike is the greatest way to experience all that our region has to offer.

Our Pedaling the Andes itinerary captures every characteristic of the Lakes Region: amazing nature, fascinating culture and history, outstanding cuisine and lodging. Originally a mountain-bike tour, recent improvements to roads, including sections of new pavement, has allowed us to revamp the itinerary for an all-road bike tour. Our recently-purchased Merida road bikes are comfortable and light with custom-built gearing for our mountains and hills. We also offer quality hybrid bikes, thereby suiting every riding style.

Meal in Petrohue

Our cycling adventure begins in Bariloche, the portal to Northern Patagonia, only a two-hour plane ride from Buenos Aires. You’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into a Swiss alpine town, a legacy of the central-European and Italian immigrants that arrived en masse since the turn of last century. I highly recommend coming to Bariloche a few days before the tour start because there are plenty of amazing things to see and do. The town still emanates the pioneer feel that many people imagine when dreaming of Patagonia. Although it is now a city offering the best in tourist comforts, you only need to drive or bike a few miles out to get into the large native forests or desolate steppes (well-preserved today as the town lies in the middle of the huge Nahuel Huapi National Park).  An important native-Indian cultural legacy is also evident – before the Spanish and Argentine armies and pioneers overran the lands (in a manner similar to the rest of the Americas) various tribes inhabited the area. Of course, these pioneers eventually mixed with the natives, as the countries of the New World where slowly formed. One of the icons of this cultural mix is the fabled Argentine gaucho, our version of the American cowboy, who exists almost true to original form, and who we are likely to see while biking. On our first night together in Bariloche, meat-lovers will feast on the world-renowned Argentine asado, or grilled meat, accompanied by great Argentine red wine.

A happy crowd feasting on salmon.

I love that the scenery changes from one day to the next and that we quickly cross three distinct ecoregions, in many places perfectly conserved, and in others modified by human intervention. On our first ride, going around Lake Nahuel Huapi, we bike right through the transition zone between the Andean forests to the Desert Steppes, with scenery reminiscent of Utah or Northern Arizona. We’ll ride by an old ranch outpost, today a country restaurant, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid once stayed on their way to Southern Patagonia. We’re also likely to see native bird species, from the nosy Caracara to the lively Magellanic Giant Woodpecker, and with luck even the majestic Andean Condor.  Tonight we’ll stay at one of my favorite towns in Argentina – Villa la Angostura, a small but very lively artist town, where we’ll sleep in a cozy lodge that was once an old pioneer family’s barn. After strolling in the evening, everyone ends up nestled by the fireplace relaxing before our most challenging day of the tour – the Crossing of the Andes!

The good news is that at this latitude, the Andes are much smaller and lower in elevation than further north. Coupled with a perfectly-paved road, this mountain pass is fantastic for cycling. As we ride through the beautiful Seven Lakes tour there are rolling-hills to help warm us up, before we turn west towards Chile. At this point we begin our steady climb to the top of the pass, which lies at about 3,900 feet (not too bad!), your reward is great views of an extinct volcano and the Andes all around us (of course, a photo under the “Welcome to Chile” sign is a must!). Once over the pass, we enter the Vicente Perez Rosales National Park in Chile, and almost immediately transition from the High Andean forests of Argentina to the Valdivian Rainforest of Chile, an ecoregion very similar to that of the Northwest Pacific in the USA. The green, lush forest has an amazing variety of flora – my favorites are the huge ferns and the beautiful Chilean rhubarb. The 15 mile descent begins within this amazing forest, with views of the volcanoes around us and huge lakes below – truly amazing! Tonight is a dream come true, first we’ll enjoy a long soak at the hotel’s wonderful hot baths (with water warmed by the nearby volcanoes), and then  we’ll feast on Chilean salmon and wine all the while enjoying breathtaking views of the Puyehue Volcano.

Next we head to what is often called the German Lakes Region of Chile.  Our night in Puerto Octay is another of my favorites – we’ll ride through this little German town before heading to our lodge, a stately and historical country manor built of local timber, where personalities like Prince Edward have stayed, and from which we will have gorgeous views of the perfectly-conical Osorno Volcano lying behind the huge Lake Llanquihue. Over the next three days, we’ll ride around this lake, going by the farms and ranches of the pioneers´ descendants, as well as the pretty towns that they founded – be sure to stop for kuchen cake and coffee in the picturesque Frutillar, and this is your opportunity to taste the best beer of South America, Kunstmann (a brewery founded by, of course, Germans!).

Saltos or waterfalls on Pedaling the Andes with ExperiencePlus!

Puerto Varas is another vibrant town on the shores of Lake Llanquihue. On our rest day here, most people (myself included!) choose white water rafting on the Petrohue River, under the shadow of the huge Osorno Volcano. Other activities can be had, such as trekking or fly-fishing – the Petrohue River is famous around the world for serious anglers, and I’ll never forget the day one of our customers returned from a day of fishing with a 45-pound salmon. What a feast we had that night!
They say the best should be left for last, and our last day of riding is no exception. We leave Puerto Varas en route to Petrohue, cycling over beautiful rolling hills with the majestic Osorno straight ahead, the huge Lake Llanquihue on our left and pretty countryside on our right. Tonight’s hotel, the Petrohue Lodge, is without a doubt my favorite of the trip. Everything about it is enchanting: the location on the magical Emerald Lake, underneath  Osorno and surrounded by millenary native forests; the amazing Central-European wood and stone architecture; the history of the place, built by hardy German immigrants, and today run by their delightful descendants; and finally, the lovely meal that’s part of our goodbye celebration. Truly the best way to cap this adventure!

One last tip! Take a couple of extra days to visit the nearby Chiloé Island, a place of incredible natural beauty and a very unique history and culture (and UNESCO World Heritage Site). If you’d like to fly out of Bariloche, it only takes one additional night to cross the Andes using the “Lakes Crossing”. Starting at the port at Hotel Petrohue, a day-trip comprising three incredible catamaran rides over high lakes gets you to Bariloche. This is the same crossing that the fabled Che Guevara used in his first jaunt into Chile, and which you can see in the movie, The Motorcycle Diaries.

Endless views in the Andes with ExperiencePlus!

At this point, you have likely gathered that I am passionate about the place where I live, and showing off our unique heritage really fills me with pride! We hope that you can share some of this passion and enthusiasm with us, and of course have loads of fun on a great vacation. I don’t know of a better means to achieve a more peaceful, understanding and caring world than by cultural exchange – this is what makes my job so amazing.

I hope to see you in Patagonia soon- hasta pronto!

Javier LardoneJavier Lardone was born and raised in different parts of the Argentine Patagonia. His father’s work took his family to the United States, Norway, Mexico and Venezuela, among other countries. After studying International Business at the University of Texas, Javier worked for corporations in the US and Latin America. These experiences forged his passion for world cultures and travel, and led to his decision to leave the “business world” behind. Javier journeyed for almost three years throughout the Americas, doing everything outdoors – climbing, mountaineering, biking and more. He worked as a scuba diving guide in Brazil, explored jungles in Central America and marveled at the ancient Mayan ruins in the Yucatan and Guatemala. He lived on the Mexican Pacific coast, where he surfed and dived. And he crossed Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil. After a 2000 km solo bike trip through North Patagonia, he found his place in the world, and began leading bike tours in Argentina, Chile and Europe in 2006.

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