For Whom the Bike Tolls…

When I meet people in Bariloche, the first conversations are almost always the same. “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” And the clincher, “What are you doing here?” The language barrier usually reduces this last question to only allow for very basic responses, as if I’m at a border crossing. People ask “business or pleasure?” Unfortunately, the answer is not all that simple. While it does please me a great deal to be here, I am indeed, also working. But few people care about the nuances of my stay and just assume I am on vacation. An assumption I don’t find the need to clarify.

But a few days ago, when a local friend asked if I wanted to take a day trip to a nearby town, I had to stop and consider it for a moment. What does it say about my current situation if I agree to a day off from the hustle and bustle of reading and taking naps? I felt that my reasons for going would somehow define what my position in Bariloche is. The town we would be visiting, Villa la Angostura is nothing more than a reduced version of Bariloche. It’s on the same lake, shares the same Hansel and Gretel architecture and is also a vast repository of outdoor activities. Unsure of whether I whether I wanted to go for a break from working or for a break from Bariloche, I decided to go. Despite the fact that–on paper–trading Bariloche for Villa la Angostura is about as intense as switching toothpastes.

On Wednesday morning I awoke plenty early, showered, dressed and prepared for every travel possibility. Laptop, camera, extra lenses, notebook, pen, Ipod, headphones, maps, dictionaries, sunglasses, contact cases, smelling salts, life preservers and money were all jammed into a small backpack. I did the responsible thing and prepared a big breakfast to go and then did the stupid thing by immediately forgetting about it and walking out the door, leaving it on the table.

A few bus rides, a lot of hunger and several hours later I had arrived in Villa la Angostura with travel supplies and Federico—the local friend/guide—in tow. We had not discussed our plans and I had assumed that we would simply wander about town, eating and drinking away the day. However, Federico did have a plan; to go for a little ride.

Villa la Angostura is mostly known for its proximity to the Parque de los Arrayanes. The arrayanes being a special tree found only in this part of the world and the parque being simply a park. The park is located on a peninsula about 14 kilometers long, starting just outside the town center. The arrayanes themselves—of course—were located at the very tip of the peninsula; a problem most sane people get around by taking the ferry that goes there frequently throughout the day. Federico instructed me that we would not waste our money on the ferry. Instead, we would save approximately 3 USD by riding mountain bikes.

At first I thought this sounded like a great idea, but quickly remembered how vengeful the siren song of bicycling can be to the weary traveler. Bicycling always seems like a good idea to those who mostly explore by foot. Here exists a machine that is designed to turn the human body into an efficient propulsion machine. Yet once you are on the bike, it becomes instantly apparent why humanity invented motorcycles and why horses have never approached extinction.

In the beginning, it was actually quite pleasant. The road from town to the start of the park gently slithered through aisles of fragrant pine that stenciled the afternoon sun on smooth pavement. At the entrance, I played the deaf, mute friend so that Federico could convince the rangers that I too was an Argentine student deserving of the reduced park entrance rate, approximately 4 times less expensive than the rate for foreigners.

My initial enthusiasm for the bike was quickly alleviated as we approached the ‘trail’. Looming before me was a massive granite wall wearing a band of stairs like Rambo wears a belt of ammunition. I turned to Federico.

“What the hell is this?”

“Escalleras.” He replied.



“I know what they are, but I thought this was a mountain bike trail.”

“It is, but only after two kilometers. We have to carry our bikes for the first two.”


This all seemed perfectly reasonable to Federico. I was not so happy as I watched a ferry full of happy, fat little tourists float by. It looked wonderful on the boat. And to make matters worse, at the bottom of the stairs was a sign that instructed everyone to keep moving. Rock falls were common and the stairs portion was dangerous. The multiple broken boards on the stairway proved that the sign meant business.

And so we climbed. The 25 pounds of preparation strapped to my back sang a harrowing and fatalistic tune to my aching muscles as the bike frame bit into my shoulder. People I had gleefully whizzed by on the road to the park were now passing me with reciprocal joy. I cursed the memory of choosing to wear pants that morning. Rain was forecast, but the sky was marvelously clear. No amount of rolling the pant legs up could negate the boiler room that my body had become. I prayed that a massive boulder would roll down and crush me, ending it all. Near the top, the stairs disappeared and were replaced by a wide trail of soft dirt; possibly because it was too step for stairs. I slipped and crawled up, dragging the bike like a wounded comrade in battle.

At last we reached the top. I tried to the look at the view that stretched out below but all I could see were flashing red spots. Recovery was slow, but eventually I could see clearly and hoped that the worst was over, that nothing but flat trail remained. A nearby signed proved otherwise.

The ride to the end of the peninsula contained three types of terrain: uphill with roots, downhill with roots and flat with roots. Nature’s little speed bumps were impossible to avoid and as fierce as a cat in a washing machine. The “shock absorber” on the front of my bike did no such thing. At first, my legs still had enough strength to stand my body on the pedals and avoid the majority of the root’s impact. But after a few miles of hills, I couldn’t raise up any longer. The trail became my prison, each root was a dropped bar of soap and the bike was a muscular lifer named Schwinn.

Near the end of the trail I saw a sign that read, Lago Patagua. The fact that it was a lake was of no consequence to me. I only cared that it provided a reason to stop. Down the path I rode, surprised to enter what appeared to be a magical glen or something cut from the Shire in Lord of the Rings. The water was amazingly clear and tranquil, framed by a soft grassy beach. All around the edge were fallen trees, bleached out and nearly glowing in the hot sun. I made the instantaneous decision to go swimming.

Stripped and excited I started running to the water, only to realize a significant problem. What I first thought was grass turned out to be a tightly knit carpet of wildflowers and bees were everywhere. Now, no one enjoys being stung, especially on the bottom of the foot when they are miles away from any decent source of transportation. For me, the biggest problem was an allergy to bees that had increased over the last few years. The thought of some rare Patagonian leopard bee stinging my leg and killing me, just feet from cool refreshment was almost too much to bear. Carefully, I tipped and I toed toward the water. Weak leg muscles threatened to betray me at any moment. And then…I entered the lake’s refuge. Pure, wonderfully cool water laid across a soft bed of warm black sand.

I swam out into a field of long, slender reeds that populated the middle of the lake and provided marginal protection from the sun. While I floated there, I thought of two things: that drowning wouldn’t be a bad alternative to riding back to town and that the reeds I was in seemed the perfect environment for massive, poisonous water snakes.

Eventually I emerged from the water, ate a pear and mounted the bike for the last 100 meters of the trail, to the end of the peninsula and the arrayanes forest. The arrayanes–the entire reason that the park existed–were completely disappointing. A 15 minute stroll among some trees and it was over. No interpretation center, no novelty acts, no concession stands, no animated mascot. It seemed a betrayal on the tree’s part, especially when considering the effort I had put in to visit.

I guess it's okay.

Before we headed back, I took a moment at the dock where the ferry drops off those who don’t wish to spend their entire day sweating and cursing in an effort to see some trees. Maybe in another life I would know the joy of such a simple trip. Yet, perhaps the ferry ride would be worse somehow. Just as I thought biking would improve on walking, maybe the ferry would be the most disappointing. Then again, the ferry probably wouldn’t make you feel like you had been sodomized by a paint mixer. In the end, it may just be that the grass is simply greener on the other side of the fence. In that case, the good people of the National Park of Nahuel Huapi have a little advice:



~ by Hutch on February 26, 2011.

3 Responses to “For Whom the Bike Tolls…”

  1. What the hell does that mean?? “Don’t stay over the fences”

    I don’t know, Patrick. I get the impression nothing is simple for you. I think your parents should have maybe named you Murphy?

    I’d opt for the ferry and be perfectly happy to be one of those fat little idiots waving at you from the water. =)

  2. Oh and btw… those trees look amazingly similar to Madronas… we have those here in Washington, you know… and they are pretty easy to get to. =)

    • I’d be scared to enlighten people of the similarities between Arrayanes and Madronas. People here seem quite taken with their unique flora. But you’re right, they’re almost identical.

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